Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The metaphysics of natural selection in the context of evolution as a whole

I have been engaged in a period of intense metaphysical reflection recently - in other words thinking about the fundamental structure of reality.

For those who don't know - I am (pretty much) an evolutionary theorist by profession, so this is a topic I have thought about a great deal over the years.

e.g. http://christian-evolutionist.blogspot.co.uk

But my recent engagement with the work of Owen Barfield has opened up the topic again; and in a more fundamentally challenging way than ever before.

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What strikes me clearly is the extent to which the whole set of assumptions of the standard Natural Selection story is completely different from natural selection than for Mormon theology, indeed almost the exact opposite.

Natural selection is predicated on a basic situation of reality as purely-material, simple, dead, non-conscious, and purposeless - and envisages complexity, life, consciousness and (apparent) purpose as emerging incrementally from this by undirected mechanisms (it 'just happens').

The Mormon theology is the opposite - the basic situation - before the earth is made - was one of spirit, life, consciousness, purpose etc. (However, Mormonism has an implicitly evolutionary metaphysics, in that creation is the organization of pre-existing 'matter' over Time by a pre-existing divinity. There is no 'creation from nothing' - with its requirement for instantaneous change - outside of Time. Mormonism envisages everything unfolding and shaping inside Time.)

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My current understanding is that there is no doubt that natural selection is real and observable - to some extent and in some situations. When a certain set of circumstances prevail - reproduction in excess, heritable variation competition etc - Natural Selection just-happens, it is algorithmic). But NS should be (logically, must be) regarded as a set of factors embedded within the larger reality.

Therefore, basic situation and long term trend is one thing - and natural selection is a local and short term modifier.

What this seems to mean, is that the mainstream modern, scientific understanding of the last 4.5 billion years on earth 'must be' wrong - because it assumes that the basic situation is entirely explained by natural selection. And this false but underlying metaphysical assumption of the ultimate validity of NS undercuts all religious belief in an insidious fashion - and destroys the reality of all and any purpose, meaning and relationships.

Barfield's insight was that we must restore a proper, true metaphysical framework to our story of the history of the earth - and we must put NS into this framework as a local and short-term factor, rather than trying to do the opposite - or trying to treat both metaphysical assumptions as (somehow) simultaneously (equally) correct.

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So, I think we need to have a very different picture in our minds when we think of the history of earth and especially of life on earth. We need a picture of the earth and everything in it as alive, conscious, purposive and connected.

(My current notion is of original Earth as a living ocean with seeds of potential Men - spiritual intelligences - in it. This isn't quite right, but something of the sort...)

This primordial situation has the potential for all that happened - then evolves by a process of transformation, metamorphosis - of coagulation and incarnation - a 'segmenting' of this diffuse reality into ever smaller, and more concentrated, and autonomous self-aware and purposive agents.

This means we 'take for granted' communication, relationship, cohesion, coordination (as the primordial reality) - and see evolution as a process of individualization, self awareness, smaller scale purposiveness etc.

But - this is en route to a final situation when the autonomous agents of incarnate Men have become more fully divine and can return to a higher and fuller and more 'equal' relationship with God.

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Natural selection is still in the picture; but working in a local and time-bounded way within this over-arching and dominant purpose. Natural selection with its tendencies to 'selfishness' and indeed parasitic exploitation; and the breakdown of complexity, order, purpose (life, consciousness...) All this is a fact; but does not have the last word. NS is 'merely' a (sometimes) counter-current in the inexorable flow of a vast and powerful river.

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In principle, I don't see any fundamental problems with this overall view, because it retains all that is observable and logically-necessary about Natural Selection while recognizing its subordinate status in evolution; and I think some such reconceptualisation of our picture of deep history is likely to be required in the long term.

In principle... It is easy enough to state what we must or should do.

But the difficult task is for the correct metaphysics to become habitual, natural, indeed subconscious - in both thinking and in public discourse - consistently applied across all realms of human life.