Saturday, March 6, 2010

Between Evolution and God: What was Darwin Missing?

I recently saw the biopic "Creation" about the life of Charles Darwin and left the theater quite contemplative. Darwin lived in a world in which the belief in God was so pervasive that his notion of evolution, a natural process of change that does not require the will of God, was considered hugely heretical. (We'll pretend for the moment that this debate does not still rage in certain parts of America and elsewhere.) It was for this reason, and Darwin's wife's terror that he would burn in Hell for the propagation of his ideas, that Darwin kept his discoveries secret for over two decades.

The battle in his day between God and Science continues today. On the one side, no aspect of reality can be explained without noting the hand of God. On the other side, nothing can be explained without the evidence of research and science. Today, while the debate between evolution and creationism still rages in some classrooms, in less than two hundred years, those considered truly learned are no longer on the side of God. Indeed, having abandoned God so completely, to be educated today is to speak of no force other than that which is defensible by replicable scientific experiments. To do otherwise is as damning of ridicule and banishment as it was to speak against God in Darwin's day.

But Darwin's theory of evolution that has been taken as fact today only tells part of the story. Certainly, the pendulum had to swing far to the other side of God to counteract the pervasiveness of the religious beliefs and teach us more about what is right before our eyes, but there is more to be understood and the pendulum is swinging again in the other direction to find some middle ground. There is something more, right in front of us, that lies between Evolution and God.

Darwin explained the evolution of form. His brilliance showed us, without a doubt, the way in which plants and animals can transform over time to adapt to new environments, new situations, new challenges. But what of the evolution of consciousness? What of the broad question of life and our purpose? Science does not yet fill the void left by the belief in God for why we are alive, nor what life and consciousness are. Not yet.

Between the esoteric ponderings of philosophers, the abstract creations of artists, and the meticulous calculations of string theorists, there are rumblings of what the future holds for the widespread belief in existence. Perhaps, as the debate between evolution and creationism looms large again in our culture, we are to see in the clash of the two an imminent birth of the transcendent third: a theory of existence that blends both and transforms our world view once again.

Dr. Brian Swimme, a professor of cosmology at California Institute of Integral Science and a prime ponderer of such theories of existence, recounted the notions of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in an interview republished in 2006 by What is Enlightenment? magazine. Swimme discussed this transcendent third, between science and God, through Teilhard's theories.
Teilhard de Chardin in the West and Sri Aurobindo in India really arrived at the same basic vision, which is that the unfolding of the universe is a physical evolution and also a spiritual evolution. . . .On the one hand, you have this awesome tradition about God or Brahmin, and on the other, you have this tradition about evolution—and adherents of each view tend to be very critical of the others. . . . Teilhard attempted to get beyond the fundamental subjective/objective dualism in much of Western thought. He began to really see the universe as a single energy event that was both physical and psychic or even spiritual. I think that's his great contribution: He began to see the universe in an integral way, not as just objective matter but as suffused with psychic or spiritual energy.
. . . The central idea of Teilhard is his law of "complexification-consciousness." He identifies this as the fundamental law of evolution. He sees that the whole process [of evolution] is about complexifying and deepening intelligence or subjectivity. The entire movement of the universe in its complexification is simultaneously a movement further into the depths of consciousness, or interiority. He saw the whole thing as a physical-biological-spiritual process. He was the one who saw it all together. You could summarize his thought simplistically and say that the universe begins with matter, develops into life, develops into thought, develops into God. That's his whole vision, right there. Now clearly, this God that develops—it's not as if God is developed out of matter. God is present from the very beginning, but in an implicit form, and the universe is accomplishing this great work of making divinity explicit.
Evolution in many forms is happening all the time. Indeed, Darwin's new understanding of the evolution of biological form, was a process of the evolution of ideas, of knowledge, of consciousness. The urge towards understanding was so strong within him that even the fear of eternal damnation could not keep him silent. Truth had to be known and understood. What is that force within us? Can we understand it only as biological evolution? What is it that propels us towards truth and greater knowledge? What keeps us moving against all odds for survival? There is something more, something that blends notions of God and science that has yet to be fully understood. Just as Darwin once defended his childrens' right to "trust their own senses" about the truths of the natural world and deny the omnipotence of God, we too will be able to acknowledge questions about the world and consciousness that neither fit into the spiritual framework that denies science, nor in the scientific framework that denies the spiritual. There is something more that lies just below our noses, waiting to be understood. . .

(Geometric image: "String Theory" by Cory Ench, 2006)

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