Process & Science – June 2003

Question: The “young earth” folk and others have made great efforts to have their point a view on creation accepted. They believe modern science is incorrect in many ways, which is disconcerting. What does process thought have to say on the creation?

Publication Month: June 2003

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Process thinkers are not supportive of “young earth” thinking. That sort of theory requires either the idea of very rapid and dramatic changes taking place in an evolutionary process or abrupt interventions by an omnipotent God. Process thought, on the other hand, is biased in favor of gradual development lured forward by God. A few billion years is not a long time for the extreme richness and complexity of the present order to emerge on a lifeless planet.

Of course, if the empirical evidence favored a much younger earth, process thinkers would have to adapt. But this is not the case. The overwhelming body of evidence supports the view that the earth has been around for several billion years. We should be open to hearing the arguments of supporters of a young earth. Every orthodoxy needs to be reexamined repeatedly. But thus far it is hard not to view young earth theorists as working hard to make the evidence fit a doctrine they have derived primarily from a literal reading of the biblical creation story. Such a reading assumes a supernaturalist view of scripture, which is also uncongenial to process thought.

Nevertheless, process theology is critical of modern science as well. This distinguishes it from many other forms of contemporary theology. Most accept the authority of the standard formulations of the natural sciences in their own domains. Process theology, as part of the broader movement of process thought, does not.

Process thinkers believe that “modern science is wrong in many ways.” It is wrong for much the same reason the “young earth” folk are wrong.  It forces the evidence into a straightjacket that it derived from an external source. The straightjacket worked so well for many purposes, that the development of science greatly reinforced the hold it gained on the Western imagination. Indeed, we have come to call this “straightjacket” the modern world view.  Process thought is a protest against that world view and the proposal of another.

The dominant world view during the Middle Ages was Aristotelian. Aristotle was the greatest scientist of his time, and his philosophy was open to further scientific progress. But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the most influential scientists chose to follow Descartes instead. Descartes provided a different model of reality.

Aristotle emphasized the teleological or purposive element in the world and, therefore, explained things according to their functions or purposes. In reaction to this, the modern model rejected teleology in the natural world altogether. It emphasized efficient causes to such an extent that the word “cause” has come to mean what Aristotle thought of as just one type of “cause” among others. The efficient cause is the feature of the antecedent situation that necessitates what occurs in the present event.

If efficient causes explain events exhaustively, then there is no escape from complete determinism. Seeking exhaustive explanation, modern science is inherently deterministic. Given the limitation to efficient causes, the only alternative to complete determination by the past is random chance or blank ignorance.

From Whitehead’s point of view, much has been accomplished by focusing on efficient causes and the mechanistically determined features of the world. But the reaction against Aristotelianism was too extreme and too dogmatic. A complete account of why any event occurs as it does requires both an account of the prior circumstances that impinged upon it and a statement of how it responds to those efficient causes. The response is purposeful and plays its own role in deciding just what the new event will be.  The refusal to allow any place to this element of purposeful self-determination has distorted and limited modern science.

The distortion is most obvious when scientific accounts of human action are offered. We know that we are not machines. Even providing scientific accounts of our actions is purposeful behavior. Scientists purposefully exclude purpose from their accounts of behavior that we know is purposeful.

From the perspective of process thought, animals also are purposive beings, and the exclusion of purpose from scientific accounts of their behavior is also distorting. An account of the evolutionary process that does not include the role of animal purpose is incomplete and inaccurate. Unfortunately, the dominant scientific account has this character.

The basic model of the nonhuman world operative in the natural sciences is not only deterministic but also materialistic. We assume that the objects of touch and sight provide us with the basic paradigm of what is. These objects seem to exist self-identically through time. They are passive. They are related to one another only spatially and temporally.

This materialistic model has broken down in relation to the subatomic world. There it leads to conceptual chaos. Process thought proposes that matter be replaced by event as the fundamental character of reality. This would allow for re-framing quantum theory in a much more intelligible way. Since the same ideas could then function in theories about the microcosmic and the macrocosmic worlds, more coherence can be introduced into science as a whole. But to carry through this proposal requires extensive re-thinking of science as a whole.

Particularly relevant to the question to which I am responding is evolutionary theory and its implication for the understanding of human beings and for belief in God. Whereas Descartes and many other early scientists assumed that the human mind was of a fundamentally different order from the objects they studied, evolutionary theory seemed to bring human beings fully into the scope of natural science. Given the dominant modern scientific model, that implied that human beings, too, are to be understood in a deterministic and materialistic way. The implications for religion, for ethics, for law, for politics, and for daily life are staggering. Against these appalling conclusions there would be good reasons to prefer even the young earth theory!

Process thinkers see no reason to choose between orthodox science and the young earth theory. By replacing deterministic materialism with a model of events, largely determined by their antecedents, but partly self-determining, they can offer an understanding of evolution that accounts better for the data. It also yields an understanding of animals and human beings that accords much more closely with actual experience. Its implications for religion, ethics, law, politics, and daily life are far more reasonable.

Sadly, one reason for rejecting process thought on the part of some scientists is that it opens the door to a theistic  interpretation of the world. The exclusion of purpose from science was partly for the sake of removing God from relevance to nature. If, after all, purpose plays a role in nature, then God may be understood as the source of that  purposive element in events. Indeed, that is the view of process theologians. In order to bring our religious insights and the empirical evidence together, we do not have to develop a young earth theory. We simply need to recognize that purpose plays a role in our lives and that this does not separate us from the rest of nature.