New Location

Over the past 2 years I have had a wonderful time at Harvard working on the history of definitions of life.  The first fruits of that research appear on these pages and many of you have kindly followed and commented on them.  Thank you.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, I will be at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, NJ wrapping up my book on the history of life-concepts – specifically the history of vegetable souls – and beginning a project on what people want from a definition of life.  I will still be blogging, but I’ve decided to consolidate work and personal blogs in a single site.  If you’re still interested in following my work, please go to:

Meeting 4.6 – Evolution of Religious Practice

The group met on 21 April to talk about the evolution of religious practice.

In applying evolutionary theory, it’s important to start with a few methodological questions. Biology looks at inheritance and variation of genes, selected for as genes (and possibly gene assemblages: individuals, populations, lineages). We can ask similar questions in the context of religions. Note that the issue “what is religion?” may be as unanswerable as “what is life?” Our methodology looks at lower-level issues.

Clearly, religious behaviors (including doctrines and practices) undergo inheritance and variation. Units of selection are somewhat problematic, but we can easily measure number of “believers” and persistence of belief – where belief has no stronger connotation than “those who behave thus.” Self-reporting data is easiest to collect, but often a poor proxy for other data, so we must be careful.

It is possible for us to bracket questions of ontological reality (e.g., Do supernatural entities exist? Are there objective morals?) and ask how natural selection acts on human behaviors related to religion. The controversial step (as often in theology as in evolutionary biology) comes when you step from hypothetical selection (X would lead to Y) to historical statements (Y was caused by X) and explanatory reduction (X is sufficient to explain Y). We can do all three, but it’s important to note when you are doing each as they require different epistemological standards.

What traits might be amenable to analysis?

The group came up with a number of answers, mostly outcomes. Within a religious group, members have measurable: fecundity (number of offspring), life expectancy, prosociality or in-group altruism (see below), education level, and income.  We challenged ourselves to come up with earlier causal factors – such as doctrines or behaviors that affected those outcomes. They included: dogmatic belief, epistemic structures (ways of knowing), entry costs (to join and remain, for example tithing), educational structures and value on education, use or rejection of reproductive technologies, and belief in supernatural policing.

What are some adaptation narratives we might investigate?


Norenzayan, Ara (2013) Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton. pp. 1-12, xiii.

Dr. Norenzayan teaches Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is famous for adaptation narratives related to religion, prosociality, and credibility displays.

What is prosocial?

In evolutionary psychology, the word usually indicates behaviors considered unambiguously positive for the group, often at expense to the individual (a.k.a. in-group altruism). Examples include tithing/paying taxes, policing, and self-restraint (re: tragedy of the commons. In our context, it is important to ask what work the word “positive” does in the definition. If positive is defined as “leading to higher fitness,” then we might as well replace “prosocial” with “adaptive.” But then we cannot be surprised when – or claim to have given new evidence for – prosociality as an adaptation.

Mormonism (CJCLDS) and Christian Science were both founded in the US in the mid 19th century. The former has 10-15M adherents worldwide, the latter ~85K. Can we explain the difference?

How do we use terms like religion, denomination, sect, cult, and church as units? Does our choice of units affect our study?

Norenzayan argues that kin selection and reciprocity allowed the formation of large social groups, transforming human societies from groups of hunter-gathers into civilizations over the last ~12,000 years. Reciprocal altruism requires some form of regularity – always interacting with the same individuals – or signaling – signs of who will cooperate – to work. Reliable signaling can be achieved through costly signaling and punishment of free-riders. But punishment is a costly behavior. If you outsource punishment, who will punish the punishers if they abuse their authority? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? –Juvenal) Large cooperative groups provide a puzzle and appear to have occurred only once, in humans.

Norenzayan differentiates between big gods, with universal moral concern and small gods (or spirits). The small gods of hunter-gatherer societies are often local and unconcerned with morals. [Note that Norenzayan characterizes the evolution of “religions” as the evolution of supernatural agents from animism to monotheism. This was proposed by Auguste Comte in the early 19th century. We should not take for granted either the sequence of events or the characterization. I think they may be accurate, but I’d like to see more research done.]

THESIS: “Prosocial religions, with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers.” p.8

Belief in Big Gods may no longer be necessary, once institutions are in place for policing, leading to the modern secular societies. [But note the successful big secular societies also have high coefficients of relatedness.]

We noted – without reading the entire book – that the correlation between big cultures and big Gods fits well with Auguste Comte’s (early 19th century) idea of a progression of religions – animism to polytheism to monotheism to adherence to impersonal principles.  It fits less well with actual history.  Comte’s progressivism was out of favor in sociology by the mid 20th century. Monotheisms (and henotheism) appear to be older and more common than was previously thought. Animism is a dubious category. Highly civilized cultures with dense populations in India and China have never been monotheistic.  Even in the history of the west, classical cities arise in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean prior to the popularity of Christianity (or Mithraism or the cult of Sol Invictus).  If we connect Big God to Plato, then we’ll have to admit that it is not a moral enforcer…  So, there may be support that Big Gods act to police big cultures, but we can’t say they regularly occur together.

We also noted that Norenzayan cites Emil Durkheim and other Functionalist sociologists, but not their critiques by conflict theorists (e.g., Marx) and Individualists/Interactionists (e.g., Weber), also very successful in sociology. Functionalists (like group selectionists) think that groups are an important unit of selection and the function of phenomenon for the group is the relevant factor in study.  Individualists (like gene selectionists) focus on smaller units of selection and emphasize the utility of individual interactions for that unit – either person or gene.

Norenzayan proposes these rules:

  • Watched people are nice (prosocial) people. There seems to be good evidence for this, but it’s important to ask: how are we using “prosocial”?
  • Religion is more in the situation than the person. This seems, a priori, a preference for functionalism.  Also, how are we using “religion”? Is this not true (if you are a functionalist) for all groups).
  • Hell is stronger than heaven. It seems clear that humans are risk averse. The idea that hell is punishment and heaven reward, but as they are often (perhaps adaptively) presented that way, we’ll let it ride.
  • Trust people who trust in God. Belief in a monitor is a good signal that people will behave as though monitored.
  • Religious actions speak louder than words. This draws on the idea of “costly signalling” in biology.
  • Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods. Group size is a costly display.
  • Big Gods for Big Groups.
  • Religious groups cooperate in order to compete. This appears to be the central claim and we saw it more as a foundational assumption than a conclusion.  If you believe adaptation is the strongest force and that group selection is an important part of that, this will be a logically necessary consequence for all groups, not just religious groups.

We wrapped up by asking

How do we differentiate between features of religions, correlates of religions, and functions of religions?

What makes a trait a function? Being adaptive? Having been adaptive?

This appears to be a major issue for evolutionary biology in general and harder to answer in complex systems like human societies. One of us felt the problem was too complex to be tractable, perhaps because of the presence of supernatural souls. Another felt that the only way to tell if it was tractable was to experiment and see what correlations could be uncovered.

For more discussion see the Spring 2011 discussions at the University of Arizona.

Meeting 4.5 – Life and Death

The group met on 7 April to talk about concepts of life and death, both in biology and in the general public.

The meaning of “life” and “death” appear to be intuitively obvious until we start asking specifically “what is it that is alive?” “Organism” can be a tricky concept. The term implies that something is organized, but science would reject the questions “by whom?” and “for what end?” We might accept “by what?” (natural selection) and “to what end?” (reproductive success), but when we attempt precision – and prediction – using these answers, we find them elusive.

It can be useful to distinguish between the person, the organism, and the system, all of which might be considered alive, but not in the same way.


Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (2010) Philosophy of religion: selected readings. Oxford University Press. pp. 461-464.

Does some aspect of the person persist through death? Christians have claimed that people persist through death or are, in some way, reconstituted after death? Note that these are very different positions.

Humans may have an immortal component that survives, usually called a soul. (Plato, Augustine, Ibn Sina, Maimonides, Ibn Rushd, Aquinas; not Biblical)

Alternatively, God may recreate individuals in the world to come. (Also Aquinas)

It is important to ask what persists in either case. Will the memory be retained? The character? The relationships? The will? Different authors construct this differently. General consensus holds that “self” will persist, but what is self?

Dualist interpretations often make the physical organism corruptible and the spiritual or mental intellect immortal. (Plato, Descartes)

Is there a difference between a continuous person (Locke claimed that identity is continual consciousness, though sleep may be a problem here) and a recreated person (John Hick imagines God creating a replica of the individual from memory)?

How would we convince ourselves of life after death? Authority? A priori arguments (e.g., Plato, Kant)? A posteriori arguments (e.g., resurrection or transmission of information from a non-physical entity to a physical observer)? Note that the question of resuscitation vs. resurrection is one of continuity vs. recreation. Is this tractable in science?

Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist thinkers suggest that the question is poorly framed. Aspects of life may be passed on (e.g., karma) without any individual or essential self. If there is transmission, what is the unit of transmission? Alternatively, there may be only one self (e.g., Atman) existing in multiple manifestations. The discussion hangs on ontology – what fundamental things you can talk about.

MIX 2015

Mix, LJ. (2015) Defending definitions of life. Astrobiology. 15(1): 15-19.

What do we mean when we use these words in science: life, alive, living, biological (of life), metabolic (of living chemistry)… ?

Pornography Definition: “I can’t say what it is, but I know it when I see it.” This is too vague to do work but still popular. What ontology does it cover?

Woese Life: possessing small subunit rRNA. When talking about life, we frequently specifically about Earth life, which shares a number of common features, including information processing via ribosomes. We could be explicit about when we are talking about this set of things, or any set constructed via phylogenetic tree.

Darwin Life: exhibiting evolution by natural selection. This is one of the most popular definitions of life in the current literature. I suggest that it is really a research program rather than a definition because evolution is poorly characterized with regards to individuals. What are the units of selection? What are the units of inheritance? Are they the same, and if not, which of the two is alive? We are accustomed to speaking of generations as the time between fertilizations in sexually reproducing species, but this does not cover the vast majority of life on Earth. Do gametophytes count as alive? Gametes? Seeds? Spores? Viruses? Plasmids? Transposons? What about things that replicate in silico?

Haldane Life: exhibiting metabolism and maintenance. This is the other most popular definition, but faces similar problems. What unit will we use? This becomes particularly clear when we speak of organisms? Where do we draw the lines? Humans are obligate symbionts with our microflora; does that make us one organism? At what point do endosymbiotic parasites become organelles? Are our prostheses part of us? Does a nuclear reactor count as metabolic? It cannot persist without human maintenance and supports human survival.

Note that Haldane life captures the difference of alive vs. dead as well as living vs. non-living. The other definitions do not and must include fossils and artifacts (iPhones have selected, variable, heritable code components).

When an individual organism of Homo sapiens dies but genes, cells, even tissues may persist. To what, if any, physical phenomenon do we attach personhood? What would the consequences be for euthanasia, medicine, reproductive technologies, and inheritance?

As a biological concept, when we speak of genes persisting through generations, we are really talking about gene “types” persisting, rather than specific polynucleotide. This is usually and ideal concept of type and not empirical. What do we mean? Is it the information content that we maintain? Information in this sense is not separable from an interpreter. Who (what) is the interpreter? How much variation do we allow before it is a new type? Such questions will be necessary to mathematize our Darwinian concept of life and, I think, necessary to consider it properly empirical.

For more on this topic, check out last semester’s discussions, starting here

Caring for Creation

Two weeks ago, I was invited to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to give a couple talks on the Catechism of Creation, a teaching tool and discussion aid dealing with creation, evolution, science, and stewardship. I highly recommend the catechism and drew up some responses to preliminary questions. Those responses are posted in three sections. The first deals with the theology of creation and the second with science and creation. This one deals with our obligations in light of our understanding: caring for creation. Thank you to John Hainze for the questions.



Why should Christian’s care about creation?

We should care because we care about God and God made it. We should care because God asked us to care for the Garden. We should care because present and future humans live in close association with thousands of other species. Their fate is our fate.

What is the source of this obligation?

Love for God and neighbor commanded in the Bible, a history of relationship, and reasoned hope for the future of our children.

What is the human relationship to creation?

We are stewards, with a unique, though not necessarily exclusive, ability to use reason and revelation for the common good.



Should Christians be concerned about the state of creation today?

One of the results of human brokenness, whether you call it original sin or by some other name, is that we have acted without love in the present and without hope for the future. In particular, our economy sets up certain incentives for individuals to neglect the common good and the future good. I believe material waste and short term thinking are grave sins leading to separation from God and neighbor.

What concerns about creation would you highlight?

I am particularly concerned that we learn to approach the rest of creation as >one among many< and not as >us versus them<. I believe this to be one of the most fundamental temptations and see it played out in both personal and public actions. I hope to overcome fear of sickness and death with a greater appreciation of our relationships to the micro-organisms that live on, in, and with us. I hope to preserve biological diversity for it’s own sake, out of curiosity in the wonders God has wrought. I hope to encourage thoughtfulness about the ways our waste can harm other species and the chemical cycles of the world.



How can we live in right relationship to creation?

That’s such a big question. I believe fostering true curiosity, critical thinking, and compassionate stewardship is the place to start.

Are there specific actions we should take?

Spend some time getting to know a non-human species really well and – this is important – for its own sake, not for how it benefits humanity.

What is your vision for the future of creation?

I think the future of creation is the New Creation in Christ – a time when every plant and animal and bacterium will be in harmony and we will more fully know the will of God for the world. I don’t know how we’ll get there, but I suspect science and the Church will have very important roles to play.

Creation and Science

Two weeks ago, I was invited to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to give a couple talks on the Catechism of Creation, a teaching tool and discussion aid dealing with creation, evolution, science, and stewardship. I highly recommend the catechism and drew up some responses to preliminary questions. Those responses are posted in three sections. The first deals with the theology of creation. This one deals with science and creation. Thank you to John Hainze for the questions.



Do we find science in the Bible?

Modern Science is an outgrowth of Enlightenment philosophy, so it would be incautious to read it into or out of the Bible. Having said that, I feel (as the founders of modern science felt) that curiosity and our hope for understanding the regularities of creation are very much to be found in the Bible. Genesis and many other parts of the Bible tell us that all of creation is worth exploring and that trying to understand the world falls within our vocation as stewards.

Are science and Christianity in conflict?

Some advocates of Modern Science and some Christian communities are deeply in conflict. For my own part, scripture, tradition, and reason all argue against the type of belief that cannot be challenged and changed when we encounter new truths. Beliefs that are held “dogmatically” – that is without the possibility of question – have been at the heart of most of the modern conflicts. Sometimes Christians hold them – as in the case of the six-day creation – sometimes Atheists hold them – as in the rejection of anything non-physical. I love the Anglican tradition because it rejects this kind of dogma and encourages the practice of critical inquiry into all things.


What is our scientific understanding of creation and how does it relate to the Christian understanding?

Science can tell us many amazing and detailed things about the world we find ourselves in. Its present form – the physical universe – appears to be roughly 14 billion years old and behave very regularly. Science cannot tell us whether there are any parts of creation beyond (under, over, before, after, or alongside) the physical universe, because science is limited to our interactions with physical things. We quite literally cannot see beyond roughly 13.8 billion years away in time and space. Nor can we touch the future, though we can make very good predictions, assuming things continue as they have in the past. Theologians have the task of finding meaning within the world and often use aspects of scientific knowledge to inform them about the underlying order of the cosmos and use science to make metaphors for less tangible truths.

What does Christian theology say about God as creator in light of recent science?

We continue to discover that God is bigger, more creative, and more subtle than we imagined. The physical universe is incomprehensibly large and filled with mass and forces beyond our current understanding – dark matter and dark energy. Reality at the most fundamental level looks a little fuzzy as we come to understand the strange structure of tiny events. Things we once thought were mechanical turn out to be probabilistic, existing partially in a number of different states at the same time. Life proves ridiculously complex, but also woven through with wondrous scalable regularities. Individuals are less independent than we thought, while performing a whole host of marvelous chemistries. All of these things invite us to approach God with less certainty, more curiosity, and deeper delight.



What is evolution and how does science support it?

The word “evolution” gets used in a multitude of problematic ways. When we speak of evolution in modern biology, we are usually talking about decent with modification leading to new species. I would explain it as a logical consequence of three observed properties of the living world.

One: living things pass on their traits to offspring. Children look like parents. We call this inheritance.

Two: children do not look exactly like their parents, but vary slightly from their parents and from one another. We call this variation.

Three: Some traits allow the creatures who have them to be more successful surviving and producing offspring. We call this selection.

Evolution, in the modern sense, is a recognition. If inheritance, variation, and selection occur – as we think they must – then any trait that is inherited reliably and selected for reliably will increase in frequency in a population. It will become more common in a variety or species. Warmer fur in cold climates and better eyesight in predators can be expected to develop over time (if the variation necessary for them happens).

Genetics and breeding in agriculture and horticulture as well as the laboratory give us daily support for the regularity of inheritance and variation, not only that they work but very keen details of how they work. Watching populations in the wild and under human influence allows us to document selection in action. Life, death, and reproduction are profoundly affected by the traits and behaviors of organisms. Biogeography and ecology allow us to watch the whole process in action while paleontology reveals millennia of past examples. We can trace changes in skeletons and metabolism through the ages. Better still, by growing bacteria and other short-lived organisms in the laboratory, we can record changes in populations through thousands of generations. Recent experiments have even shown us dramatic innovations in biochemistry and reproductive isolation. In other words, we have seen major transitions occur and watched new species arise.

What is a Christian response to evolution?

I believe the Christian response to evolution should be the same as the Christian response to gravity. It is a regularity of God’s world that we observe and work with. Like gravity, the increase in entropy, and the force of splitting atoms, it reveals ways in which the universe has been, is, and can be unfriendly to humans. The world is bigger than we are and that always troubles us. And yet the Christian response, as we find in Job, is to accept that we are not the Creator while constantly pestering the creator and creation for better answers. Like the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18), we don’t get stuck on the question of why or whether it is fair. We move straight toward trying to reach a better outcome.

What about humans being formed in the image of God?

The Bible tells us we are made in the image and likeness of God. The writers of the Catechism of Creation emphasize that this means we have the ability to enter into relationships with God, neighbor, and creation. I agree, but would add that the question reveals our interest and perhaps insecurity about our relationship with God. Do we have a special place in God’s heart? Do we have a unique role as the primary power under God and over creation? I still struggle with those questions and think they present important areas to explore, theologically. At the same time, I think we can move forward in the knowledge that God loves us specifically – but not exclusively – and we must always act for the good of all.

What are creationism and intelligent design?

Creationism and Intelligent Design are interesting and potentially useful theological positions, but when framed as scientific hypotheses have failed to meet our standards.

The Biblical notion that God created the heavens and the earth has long been called Creationism. It reminds us of our place within the world that God has made good. The late 19th century doctrines of young earth creationism and special creationism strike me as irresponsible attempts to impose scientific concepts on Genesis. Young Earth Creationists believe that God made the world in six 24-hour periods, six to ten thousand years ago. Fossils, radioisotope data, geological formations, and astronomical observations are all inconsistent with the idea and I do not think God would be so unkind as to leave us all those false leads. Special Creationists hold that God made all kinds of living things in their present form by an instantaneous act of will. They deny that populations change through time, or at least that they undergo large-scale changes. Over the last 100 years we’ve documented cases of exactly these large-scale changes in the biochemistry, anatomy, and behavior of organisms. We’ve watched populations change in significant ways, taking on new function and responding with entirely novel behaviors. Those observations make special creationism seem like a bad perspective. For at least 1600 years Christians have said that the Bible must be interpreted in light of our best understanding of the world. Augustine of Hippo and Basil of Caesarea, both highly influential fourth century theologians, argued that we must look at scripture this way and not try to impose preconceived notions about what the Bible is trying to tell us in any given place.

The Bible tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. Christians have long believed that we may know God through the Creation and that we may understand God’s purposes better – if not fully – through the works of God’s hands. William Paley made such an argument forcefully and persuasively in the 18th century. He claimed that complex creations revealed a complex creator. Some philosophers went on to make the scientific claim that God could only made these things directly and instantaneously. They denied that evolution by natural selection was sufficient to explain the intricacy and specificity of living things. I find this objectionable, theologically because it claims to limit the manner in which God may act. I find it objectionable scientifically because it makes no testable predictions. It simply denies that some things may arise through natural selection. Now that we’ve seen similar things arise, we can say that intelligent design, already ambiguous as a scientific doctrine, does not fit with the data.

In both cases, it concerns me that good theological doctrines – God created and bears greater depth and majesty than the world has yet revealed – have been weakened so that they may be used as bad scientific theories. I want to abandon the theories so we can return to the older doctrines.

What is the Episcopal Church position on evolution, creationism and intelligent design?

The Episcopal Church has not taken an official position on evolution, creationism, and intelligent design and has members with a variety of positions. I would guess the majority of Episcopalians see evolution as a useful scientific doctrine and have found the modern versions of creationism and intelligent design unconvincing. In 1982, our legislature, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church affirmed our belief that God can create in any manner, rejected dogmatic interpretations of creationism, and encouraged the humble search for truth in science and theology.

Can awareness of evolution enhance spiritual life?

Any true insight into creation aids the spiritual life, just as any truly nutritious food aids the physical life, so long as we encounter it at the right time and place. Sometimes we are full and sometimes we are sick and need to be careful. With that caveat, I find evolution to be a great way of thinking concretely about the mysteries of physical life. How do we relate to others? How are we fed and how are we fed upon? What other goals might God have in the world besides human flourishing? What prejudices may we have as a result of our evolutionary history rather than of our own will or God’s will for us? I find all of those fruitful and engaging questions.

Theology of Creation

Two weeks ago, I was invited to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to give a couple talks on the Catechism of Creation, a teaching tool and discussion aid dealing with creation, evolution, science, and stewardship.  I highly recommend the catechism and drew up some responses to preliminary questions. Those responses are posted in three sections.  This one deals with the theology of creation.  Thank you to John Hainze for the questions.


How do we understand the Biblical stories in Genesis?

As setting the groundwork for our relationship with God, neighbor and world. The primary lesson I take from the opening of Genesis (and the openings of the Gospel) is that God set the boundary conditions for the world, loves what was created, and seeks a deeper relationship with us. These stories have a great many other lessons as well, but it would be a mistake to interpret them in ways that work against that principal truth.

Are there other Biblical creation stories? What do they tell us?

Job 38-41 tells us that creation is greater than humanity and human interests. Job and Jonah assure us of God’s care for all things, even plants and animals. Psalm 104 speaks of God’s relationship with all created things. The Gospel of John and Romans speak of God as that principle which informs and orders as well as enlivens all things.


Why do we believe that God is the creator?

We believe that God is the creator because of revelation passed on through scripture and tradition. We also believe because the idea of God as creator provides coherence to our theories of meaning and value in the world, our ability to understand, and the fundamental worth of all knowledge.

How does God create?

God creates graciously: out of nothing, in abundance, with care and attention to detail, and for the sake of that which is created. It is of God to create, insofar as we know God, we know a gracious artist, who knit us together.

What roles do Christ, Wisdom, and the Holy Spirit play?

All things were made through Christ. For me this means they were made in the light of Christ. There were made by that care and love which is most clearly manifest in Jesus of Nazareth but which extends through all Creation. In Christ all things hold together. Wisdom expresses this orderliness, not as an imposed blueprint but as a craft that shapes as it creates, listens as it speaks, and makes things well. The Holy Spirit is the action of God that makes existence, the wind on the face of the deep, the breath of life, and the fire that enkindles the Church.


How does God relate to human beings and the rest of creation?

With curiosity, care, and love – that very love of I Corinthians 13 that demands nothing, but hopes abundantly, the self-giving love of Philippians 2 that empties itself as it fills others, the wise love of Isaiah and Romans that plans for the future as it recalls the past. God calls us to use our gifts in the service of all our neighbors. I do not know what God calls other species to, but I suspect it is equally challenging and worthwhile.

Does God continue to create?

I think one of the greatest mistakes in Christian theology is the idea of a watchmaker God who, having once created, steps away. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, just as is the deep. It is the breath of God that makes all time to be. In God we live, and move, and have our being from moment to moment. God’s hand supporting me is as close and constant as the breath in my lungs. Creation was not a past event, but an eternal and continuous outpouring of Divine power.

What is meant by New Creation?

The new creation is the mysterious deepening and fulfilling of creation completed and begun in Jesus death and resurrection. It is mysterious in the classic sense – a fundamental truth about the universe which cannot be fully comprehended but can be realized in action and contemplation. It is manifest in the church not solely as doctrine – though through doctrine we approach truth – not solely in worship and ritual – though in the sacraments we find an outward and visible sign of an inward and pervasive grace – not solely in community – though the Church at its best is the New Creation. In short, we can participate in it, but we cannot explain it – not unlike dancing.

Meeting 4.4 – Randomness

The group met on 24 March to talk about how the word “random” is used in biology and theology.  We read a chapter by Ian Barbour about Quantum Mechanics, but spoke more about the implications for biology.

Barbour, Ian (2000) When science meets religion. Harper. Chapter 3: The Implications of Quantum Physics.


The word random takes a number of different definitions and it can be important to be clear on which one you are using when communicating about biology.

  1. Without purpose, intent, or order – contrasted with design. “Well, that was random.” Note that random can be observer specific (I Kings 22:34). Gamblers rely on this version of randomness.
  2. Operating with statistical but not deterministic regularity. My favorite description holds that predictions may be made for a class of events but not for individual events. Probabilistic or Stochastic. Casinos rely on this version of randomness.
  3. Operating with statistical regularity in a uniform distribution. All possible outcomes are equally probable, as with a die roll or a coin toss.

Only definition 2 applies in modern evolutionary biology. Variation and drift follow stochastic rules. Selection, per se, does not. Christian critiques of evolution often focus on definition 1.


Newtonian Atomism (Mechanism) was

Deterministic in the sense that knowledge of the complete state of the system now gives you full knowledge of the state of the system at any point in the future (see Laplace’s Demon).

Reductionistic in the sense that knowledge of the complete state of the fundamental particles (at the time atom) is sufficient to explain all interactions at all higher levels.

Realistic in the sense that the phenomena described are independent of their observation (cp. Cartesian Dualistic Mind from meetings 4.1 and 4.2).

Quantum mechanics calls all three into question. Beginning in the 1920s, physicists (including Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger) began describing physical events in terms of discrete packets of energy (“quanta”) according to stochastic rules. Further, those rules suggest some things cannot be known – for example, we apparently cannot simultaneously know the momentum and position of a particle beyond a known precision. (The product of their standard deviations must be greater than h-bar over 2).

This methodological stochasticity may be interpreted in (at least) 4 ways.

Hidden Variable approaches hold that more knowledge will yield a deterministic system and deterministic predictions. Virtual interference (the ability of a single photon or electron to interfere with itself by traveling multiple paths) makes this an unpopular option. [Einstein]

Conceptual or Experimental Limitation approaches hold that, whether or not the system is deterministic, we only have stochastic ways of modeling it. This limitation may or my not be fixable. Atomic decay (the breakdown of radioactive nuclei according to an exponential distribution) suggests that something is going on in the thing itself, independent of observation or conceptualization, making this a less popular option. [Bohr]

Objective Indeterminacy approaches (e.g., the Copenhagen Interpretation) hold that an objects or the universe has an inherent and probabilistic propensity to act in particular ways rather than a deterministic reliability to always act in a fixed way. This makes the universe time-irreversibly contingent. Multiple potential outcomes exist until one actual outcome occurs. Note that one popular interpretation of fitness follows these lines, constructing fitness as a propensity to survive and reproduce. Observed and propensity fitness are different according to contingent factors. [Heisenberg]

Many-Worlds approaches hold that all outcomes appear deterministically in some universe. What appears to be a collapse into contingency is really movement of the observer into one of two or more branching universes. Besides being an affront to Occam’s Razor (it multiplies entities to infinity), the Many-Worlds interpretation also fails to answer why we, as observers follow the trajectory we do. For these reasons it remains a minority opinion. [Everett]

Experimental evidence points toward Objective Indeterminacy, but it is not falsifiable or provable in physics, as we have no empirical access to potential but non-actual worlds.

The Mechanical Philosophy (Gassendi, Descartes, Boyle)

Enlightenment thinkers, in reducing the physical world to particles and forces, made physics far more tractable, but risked being called Atheists by an establishment that connected final causes to inherent dispositions and God’s will working in things. They replied that God was not only necessary in their system, but demonstrable as someone need to make and enforce the “laws” (a term just becoming popular). Theologians thus began to understand determinism as proof of God’s existence and goodness. When science lost determinism in the early 20th century, some theologians felt science was moving away from God. Others felt that pinning arguments for God on science was a bad idea in the first place and no harm had been done. In my opinion, too much theological reliance on science in the 17th century was the problem, not too little in the 20th.

This began a movement toward Deism in which God made the laws and made them self-sustaining, then walked away.

In evolutionary biology, one might claim that God is the hidden variable or that God operates with a different epistemology than humans, preserving human uncertainty without making God uncertain (Denis Alexander). OR one might claim that God created stochastic processes and lets them run (Arthur Peacocke). OR one might claim that stochastic processes exclude divine action (Jaques Monod) or at least separate divine action (Rene Descartes).

For more on randomness, see the second semester (Fall 2010) of discussions from the Forum on Chance, Purpose, and Progress at the University of Arizona.