Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Emergence and Miracles

A well-known cartoon by columnist Sydney Harris is often used by naturalists to chide adherents of intelligent design or creationism.

Naturalism itself, however, often has great difficulty providing completely naturalist explanations. It is well-known that naturalism has great difficulty solving the following mysteries (see my book The Divine Challenge):

● why the universe exists and continues to exist
● why the universe has a particular mathematical structure
● how random interactions give rise to increasingly complex information
● how purposeless non-life can give rise purposeful life
● how matter can produce mind
● why our minds are capable of purposeful, rational thought.
● how non-physical factors (e.g., logic and morals) can influence the mind
● how our mental choices are transformed into physical action.

These numerous explanatory gaps are all the more glaring given the grandiose claims of naturalists. Consider, for example, Edward Wilson's book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), which asserts that all truth can be acquired by the reductionist methods of natural science. All knowledge, Wilson believes, can ultimately be reduced to the laws of physics.

    Naturalists like Wilson are confident that, since scientific reductionism has answered many questions about the natural world, it will eventually be able to answer all questions. Naturalist explanations are deferred to as yet unknown (natural) laws, to be discovered by future research. But these are mere promissory notes of wishful thinking.

    It is not even the case that materialist science is steadily reducing the mystery even about material reality. For example, the discovery of quantum mechanics deepens, rather than explains, the mysteries of how matter behaves and how it connects with mind and mathematics. Similarly, the discovery of DNA, with its intimate connection to information, which is generally a product of intelligence, deepens the mystery of life.

    Naturalists often bridge gaps by an appeal to emergence. At certain levels of complexity new properties allegedly emerge quite naturally, introducing new higher-order laws. Emergence is held to account for the jumps from non-life to life, to consciousness, to rational thought, and so on. Such appeals are, however, never backed up by any plausible mechanisms. Surely the onus is on naturalists to show how these gaps can be bridged--at least in principle, if not in practice.

    The difficulty is that these gaps are anything but trivial. It is not a question of merely filling in a few minor details in an otherwise complete naturalist portrait of reality. Rather, these are huge leaps across quite different categories, from non-life to life, from matter to mind, and so on. These are, in fact, the fundamental things that need explaining. Naturalism may be able to describe fairly well how matter interacts with other matter but it fails miserably in explaining the deeper mysteries of the universe.

    Some naturalists have come to acknowledge that assertions of emergence amount to no more than appeals to magic. Yet, if genuine, natural emergence is ruled out, what other options do naturalists have? One possibility is to simply concede that the jumps are inexplicable. For example, physicist Kenneth Denbigh doubts that genuinely new things can simply emerge from previously existing things. He believes that the emergence of a new level of reality is always indeterminate. It has no cause at all (The Inventive Universe 1975: 145). But to say that emergence happens for no reason at all is to give up on rational enquiry, which seeks to explain why things are the way they are. To render the gaps naturally inexplicable is to admit naturalist defeat.

    Naturalist philosopher Colin McGinn believes that the deepest philosophical problems--such as free will, the self and how the brain can give rise to conscious mind--are humanly insoluble. Our minds have inherent limitations, imposed by the biology of our brains. McGinn states
 'it is the purest dogmatism to believe that the human mind, at this particular stage of evolutionary history, has reached the pinnacle of cognitive capacity' (The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Mind in a Material World 1999: 45).

McGinn believes that the problem of consciousness, for example, is so fundamental that we cannot even conceive of any process that could account for it. Nevertheless, he is confident that there is a naturalist explanation, even though humans are as yet incapable of conceiving it. He insists that this mystery requires no theistic miracle. Yet, were our human minds indeed as limited as McGinn supposes, his claim that there exist a naturalist explanation is itself pure naturalist dogmatism. McGinn's agnostic solution, too, amounts to an admission of naturalist defeat.

   Naturalist attempts to explain the origin of life via chemical evolution are compared by William Dembski to medieaval alchemy. Perhaps the Harris cartoon should be modified in lines similar to that suggested by Dembski:

    The naturalist might object that grounding the links between matter, mind and mathematics in the nature and activity of God is no more of a solution than ascribing them to emergence. Miracle and emergence, it might be thought, are no more than empty words expressing our ignorance.

   Yet there is a difference. The Christian ascribes miracles to the purposeful work of a living, rational and omnipotent God. The naturalist, on the other hand, ascribes such miracles as the emergence of life, mind and mathematics to the purposeless complexity of dead, insensible and inert matter.

   Given the popularity of the Harris cartoon among naturalists, it is ironic that Sydney Harris himself had the following to say about naturalist explanation:
"to believe that the universe originated and evolved out of pure chance is to be a greater believer in the 'miracle' of mathematical probabilities than those who believe in the 'miracle' of creation by design" ("Thoughts at large", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov.15, 1979, p.11).

    In sum, emergence is just another name for miracle—but one that allegedly happens entirely by magic without a magician.


  1. Thanks for this, Dr. Byl. These are things I have often thought, but without the scientific knowledge to explain them. My background in philosophy helps to see these things, but my inexperience scientifically means that I don't always know if there is an answer for it.

    I appreciate reading your posts.

  2. Hallo John,

    You mentioned Dembski. Did you have a look at his book, End of Christianity ?

    Any thoughts ?


  3. Hi Slabbert

    I have not read "The end of Christianity", but I have read his earlier (2007) paper on theodicy, which apparently covers the same ground. Dembski's main thesis is that natural evil is caused by Adam's fall. Since God foreknew Adam's fall, God created the world fallen to start with, as an anticipatory punishment. Thus natural evil can exist miilions of years before Adam.

    Dembski's argument is similar to that of Jitse vanderMeer, which I discussed in the post "Evolution and the Fall".

    For an in-depth review of Dembski see Terry Mortenson's review at



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