The paradox of the self-denying mind

I jokingly said on FaceBook a few weeks ago that I thought I’d lost my need for certainty over the last decade, but I wasn’t sure. One of the areas which no longer move me to indignation very often is the “Creation/Evolution” controversy.

As if by force of habit, however, I do still read about it when I stumble onto something. I probably have 3-4 unread books in that general area, as well as having read a dozen or more over the years – and a dozen is probably a gross underestimate.

I’m not really competent enough in the hard sciences to rely on primary sources sources, but there are some accounts for intelligent non-scientists that seem to be at a fairly high level. I take them all with a grain of salt, however, as (1) it has become clear that everybody has an ax of some sort to grind – else they wouldn’t be writing about it and (2) one side sounds pretty good until I revisit the other side.

There are Christians whose integrity and intelligence I respect (it is because I respect and read them that I stumble onto articles and books on the controversy as often as I do) who are adamant foes of evolutionary theory and proponents of Intelligent Design. But I don’t share their visceral passion. They may be right and I may be wrong. I was wrong once.  (Thought I was a second time, but I was wrong.)

Here’s my full bona fide, extemporaneous disclosure of what ax I have to grind – I who can go weeks at a time without thinking about the controversy:

  1. “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” (Nicene Creed)
  2. I.e., I believe there is an invisible creation, which conventionally is called “supernatural” but is in fact just as created as the visible, “natural” created world. The key distinction is not nature versus supernature, but created versus uncreated. And only the Holy Trinity is Uncreated.
  3. The uncreated Holy Trinity is impenetrable by science or reason generally, but has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. That’s Himself. Not scientific detail about the past. (And not – cover your eyes, Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye – details of earthly life that are yet future.) The Old Testament preeminently reveals Christ typologically; secondarily, it reveals God’s dealings with earthly Israel and its neighbors. If there’s tertiary purpose – and there probably is – it doesn’t come readily to mind.
  4. Although there are Orthodox Christians – including Father Seraphim Rose, who was no intellectual slouch – who adhere to something like a full-throated Creationism® (used as a term of art for creation in 6 days of 24 hours about 6,000 – 10,000 years ago), I do not by any means understand that to be obligatory. My own position, very lightly held except for the preceding points, is generally Intelligent Design rather than Creationist®.
  5. Whatever else you can say about it, the theory of evolution has been scientifically fruitful. So, I’m told, was the theory of alchemy. If you can get the whole Guild on the same page, it tends to make things interesting and productive even if the theory later collapses. So evolutionists have not been dogmatically hanging onto a delusional and unproductive theory just because it reinforces a prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism (though one of their own famously said he’d prefer any natural explanation to any supernatural explanation because of such a prior commitment).
  6. I do not understand Darwin to have said anything about the origins of life – only about The Origin of Species.
  7. I don’t think neo-Darwinism has much more to say about the origins of life than did Darwin – except, perhaps, a few just-so stories.
  8. I believe in what Wesley J. Smith calls “human exceptionalism.” Regardless of the origin of the human species in evolutionary terms, there’s within us a microcosm of the one in whose image we are made.

Believe it or not, that’s all preliminary. The actual occasion of this posting is my discovery (if I’d read it before, I had forgotten) of an essay by polymath George Gilder, titled Evolution and Me. Gilder does not diminish the importance of others’ work in Intelligent Design, but takes his own path away from any materialistic reductionism through Information Theory:

I came to see that the computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer’s materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software or “source code” used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.

The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon’s concept of entropy and his measure of “news.” Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.

As I pondered this materialist superstition, it became increasingly clear to me that in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around. The pattern seemed to echo some familiar wisdom. Could it be, I asked myself one day in astonishment, that the opening of St. John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, is a central dogma of modern science?

In raising this question I was not affirming a religious stance. At the time it first occurred to me, I was still a mostly secular intellectual. But after some 35 years of writing and study in science and technology, I can now affirm the principle empirically. Salient in virtually every technical field — from quantum theory and molecular biology to computer science and economics — is an increasing concern with the word. It passes by many names: logos, logic, bits, bytes, mathematics, software, knowledge, syntax, semantics, code, plan, program, design, algorithm, as well as the ubiquitous “information.” In every case, the information is independent of its physical embodiment or carrier.

I wont go much beyond that teaser about any details. Gilder speaks for himself, and you’ll find him persuasive or not for yourself.

But I do want to say this: I have difficulty seeing this as a “breakthrough description of the case against Darwinism” (Discovery Institute blurb) in any way that should affect non-scientists like me. Perhaps it really is a breakthrough scientifically (don’t expect to see white flags waving, however), but I’ll relegate that question to the scientists themselves.

For non-scientists like me, Gilder’s argument is cumulative evidence that there’s more going on in humanity, if nowhere else, than that which can be explained materially. The proverbial “bottom line” is kind of old hat:

Materialism generally and Darwinian reductionism, specifically, comprise thoughts that deny thought, and contradict themselves. As British biologist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1927, “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” Nobel-laureate biologist Max Max Delbrück (who was trained as a physicist) described the contradiction in an amusing epigram when he said that the neuroscientist’s effort to explain the brain as mere meat or matter “reminds me of nothing so much as Baron Munchausen’s attempt to extract himself from a swamp by pulling on his own hair.”

Analogous to such canonical self-denying sayings as The Cretan says all Cretans are liars, the paradox of the self-denying mind tends to stultify every field of knowledge and art that it touches and threatens to diminish this golden age of technology into a dark age of scientistic reductionism and, following in its trail, artistic and philosophical nihilism.

Anyone who has taken philosophy knows that the “meat machine” is – well, a philosophical possibility. But I can’t live that way. And every word the materialist says to prove materialism to others says that he can’t live that way, either.

As I lose my need for absolute factual certainty, that’s evidence enough for me.