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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


Anonymous said...

Within religion and philosophy there are two competing perspectives of human history: Arcadianism and Eutopianism.

The Christian Bible begins with the Genesis account of man within the Garden of Eden. It concludes with Revelation's depiction of the City of Zion, the New Jerusalem.

The view of Arcadia holds that everything was perfect in the beginning, in the Garden, and all present suffering is the result of man's fall causing them to be cast out of the Garden. The project of Arcadianism then is to return everything to its original state, reverse the effects of the fall, and shed all of the accretions of the fallen world.

The Eutopian view however asserts that the situation was not ideal in the beginning, and that man's focus must be on the future. The goal is therefore to build the Great City, Zion. Progress instead of regress. Instead of letting go of things and dissolving distinctions, in Eutopia man must be added upon, must absorb new things into itself.

Eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism are essentially Arcadian in nature. Judeo-Christian religions are essentially Eutopian- but they haven't always adopted concepts of reality that mesh with this. The traditional view of Creation Ex Nilho reinforces an Arcadian view of the world because it suggests a flawless world in the beginning that ought to have remained static and unchanged. In a Eutopian mindset change is good and necessary. And here, the idea of natural selection is understandable. To think of it as a refining process (among other processes) that plays a role in God's plan is easier to imagine if we first envision the world as needing to evolve into something more in the first place.

And it's important, I think, to speak of the evolution and progress of the world as a whole towards something good as distinct from man's progress towards Godliness. Man's salvation is individual, happening to one person at a time, and constitutes a metamorphosis of the person into a more mature, God-like entity. Natural selection is not the key factor here. The evolution of mankind as a species and life on Earth at large, in which natural selection plays its real role, has to be understood in light of building up the City of God, a city fit for gods to inhabit.

- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - Thanks - that's helpful.

Unknown said...

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

I went through a period of intense metaphysical reflection about a year and a half ago. I spent most of my time studying the metaphysics of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Heidegger.

One of the results of all this metaphysical reflection is that I wrote a short story based on Parmenides' ontological characterization of the fundamental nature of existence and it was published in the Sci Phi Journal: The Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy.

William Wildblood said...

No doubt all was perfect in the beginning but God allowed the Fall to bring about greater levels of perfection. Breaking eggs to make omelettes and all that. In that way God grows, always the same but ever changing, you might say. And He grows mostly through us.

Natural selection clearly has a part in the evolutionary process but it is very much secondary to the unfolding from within of pre-existing spiritual pattern.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
Re: evolution, Barfield, etc.
I expect you know, but there is a superb site developing Barfield’s theories in the realm of evolution, the meaning of nature (particularly from a Goethean point of view) and cell functioning, etc.
My particular interest is in Stephen Talbott’s brilliant work on the workings of the cell. He has an amazing talent for finding out the latest discoveries in this area and using them to explain and illustrate how life at that mini-miniscule level is more like a dance than a DNA Heath-Robinson machine. Please peruse if you have not already done so: http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/
Best regards and Happy New Year - still reading everything you write (except on cricket – sorry, nobody’s perfect; and who wants to be a nobody?).

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - Thanks for your continued support, and the link which I shall peruse! - Bruce