Entia non sunt multiplicanda…

Last year Mr Tom Mcintyre produced this quote from the Blessed John Henry Newman (letter to Catholic Herald, 2 August): “Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of divine prescience and skill…(I do not see that) the accidental evolution of living beings is inconsistent with divine design – it is accidental to us, not to God.”

This was very much the answer I got from the holy Jesuits in 1944, when I was at preparatory school. Nowadays Newman would no doubt cut out the subjunctive and accept that, insofar as any scientific truth can be certainly stated, the principle of evolution can safely be held as true.

And so, I accept it. Yet I find it hard to rid my mind of some oddities. Why did God, who by definition is capable of creating what he wishes by his fiat, set about to work through such a complex way?

Take the timetable. Assuming that no universe existed before ours, the Almighty allowed nearly fourteen thousand million years to pass before the first member of our species appeared – less than two hundred thousand years ago. And this was on a planet, related to one star in an immense galaxy which was, in turn, a single instance amongst uncountable others. Long time, no see – don’t you think?

This ancestor of ours was himself the product of a long chain which appears to have started from the simplest elements stimulated into biological action by some phenomenon about which we can only guess. And then comes the random development of that chain, filtered by no more than the fact that characteristics which helped survival survived and those that didn’t didn’t.

The result, scientists claim, is that there are now just under 9 million species on earth. And some of them are very rum. But perhaps the rummest of all is us: creatures with brains of astounding complexity, sufficient to do mighty things and stupid enough to engage in mighty follies. It’s very odd.

If you encountered some intelligent human who, by chance, had no knowledge of these things (perhaps, Man Friday) – and told him the story, his eyes would widen, he would laugh with incredulity, and soon he would wander back to his lonely island, wondering at his bad luck that the only human he happened to meet, would turn out to be a village idiot.

Had you persuaded him to humour you a little while longer, you could of course explain that if God was, by definition, almighty, the whole thing would be no problem. What’s a billion years here or there for the Almighty? What’s a billion universes here or there? How about all the atoms in the universe, how about all the interactions of atoms since it all began? You could continue by pointing out that the Almighty could see, stage by stage, every step of evolution – knowing that it would all turn out right in the end.

But would he be convinced? Might he not simply say: “Of course, if you have defined your god as a being with infinite powers, you have already assumed what you have set out to prove. You still have not shown me why he chose to go through such immense complications in order to create human beings, when he could have done it all much more straightforwardly. Isn’t the simplest, and therefore the most satisfactory, explanation that this is all a natural phenomenon, and not a matter of creation at all?

And what would you say next?

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in evolution, Philosophy, Quentin queries, Scripture. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Entia non sunt multiplicanda…

  1. Vincent says:

    Moreover, your Man Friday might say, your God carefully chose to create through a method of strife, destruction, and the weakest going to the wall. So, if you want to imitate him, you’d better exterminate all low grade individuals so that only the best specimens survive. Instead of condemning eugenics you should follow them ruthlessly. Think of the quality of the human race which you would achieve then!

  2. Peter D. Wilson says:

    I don’t expect this would satisfy your sceptical islander, but suppose the conditions permitting the process of evolution were merely one aspect of a much broader scheme necessary for some purpose vastly more important than the generation of human kind; would that not solve the difficulty? After all, to believe the whole of creation, knowing what we do of it, to be simply for our benefit would suggest colossal vanity. Perhaps we should have the humility to accept the possibility, if not the likelihood, of being merely a minor (but with extraordinary generosity cherished) by-product.

  3. Zenza says:

    “Why did God, who by definition is capable of creating what he wishes by his fiat, set about to work through such a complex way?”

    This is actually a really easy one to answer – for the same reason scientists use evolution to make better AIs and robots. Even game designers have used it. This method certainly isn’t cruel from God’s perspective since life and death are merely states of being for eternal souls.

    The really big, big, big, question is actually the reverse of the one implied here – why is it that scientists, confronted by the anthropic principle, deny the possibility of a divine hand in the universe? This is a bigger and more pointed question than it sounds. The problem for people who want the universe to have arisen by pure chance is that the universe is WAY too well made for this to have happened. The odds of the universe being as habitable as it is are, literally, incalculable. a little more or less mass or speed at the big bang – no planets. A little more or less attraction on a subatomic level – no elements to speak of. A minor twitch in the power of gravity – no planets or stars. And that is before we even get close to the shear ludicrousness of the idea that some of that dead matter might, through shear chance, form into living things. Never mind the impossibility of the Cambrian Explosion or the universe existing at all, we are talking about the most complex ‘machines’ in existence assembling themselves out of random trace chemicals. The real problem is not if evolution contradicts scripture or not, but how on Earth it is that science isn’t the most religious profession on Earth since they have had evidence for decades that suggests the universe was not only tailor made for life to grow in, but that ‘someone’ has been poking things along. As an example of that last part – why does human intelligence exist at the level it does? Nothing in nature can really account for it needing to be that high. Why did life begin almost the instant that the Planet Earth was ready to support it? Why does life exist at all? Why does the universe seem perfectly adjusted and tweaked to support it? There are just too many problems with the idea that the universe ‘just happened by chance’.

    • Nektarios says:

      Zenza
      Welcome to the SS blog.net. I have not seen your name before.
      Perhaps it might be good to listen to the Lecture I posted in near the end of the last topic by Fr John Behr, who is an eminent theologian and writer. He answers many of the questions we are posing here.

    • Alan says:

      I think of the odds of things being just the way they are as being literally incalculable too. But I wouldn’t go any further than that in trying to judge what the odds actually are. I think it is perhaps this difference in perspective that would have most scientists, while not actually denying the possibility of God, also not drawing the conclusion you do from the same evidence. We know too little about it to decide that it is unlikely.

      • John L says:

        A small example – even a trivial one… Why does ice float ?
        All known materials which we can recognise in gaseous, liquid and solid phases exhibit an increase in density as temperature falls. Thus, as a liquid solidifies, it sinks within the remaining liquid. The most familiar compound, vital to life, is water, and this behaves differently. As water cools it reaches maximum density at about 4 degrees Celsius, and then between that temperature and zero Celsius, the freezing point, it expands slightly and the solid (ice) floats.
        Were this not so, the oceans, in which life began, in the course of ice ages would have frozen from the bottom up, and become virtually impossible to melt, except for a shallow layer of water on top of unimaginable quantities of ice.
        This would bode ill for the evolution of life.
        I may well be mocked for apparently putting this forward as a “quirk” in God’s creation plan, but I think it stretches the “by chance” argument a bit far.

      • Alan says:

        If water behaved differently it would have had an impact on the evolution of life on this planet. But Jupiter’s moon Europa probably has an ocean that is kept liquid below an icy surface because of the temperature generated in the core of the moon. I don’t think we know how long those conditions have been stable and I don’t think anyone is suggesting complex life will be found there … but it does suggest to me a way in which such quirks aren’t necessarily as critical as we might think. Here again, I feel that we aren’t armed with enough information to draw conclusions about how “miraculous” the odds are. It’s not what we know that makes it impossible to calculate these things, it’s what we don’t know.

      • John L says:

        Alan,
        I don’t dispute the point you are making, but water on Europa exhibits the same behaviour as on Earth, namely the ice is at the surface and the liquid beneath. Measurements of the Antarctic Ocean beneath the winter ice cover reveal a teeming multiplicity of life.
        All I wanted to say was that, to me, the anomalous behaviour of water smacks more of a plan than it does of blind chance. – But then I’m naïve.

      • Alan says:

        I agree with you that the water on Europa will behave in the same way. I was just suggesting that, with a temperature gradient from warm at the core to below freezing at the surface, we can imagine a stable ocean that wasn’t at all dependant on the unusual density properties of water. The development of life then, if indeed it did require such an ocean, wouldn’t need to be at all dependant on that particular property either. It looks to be important from what we understand of our own experience, but our experience is quite limited.

  4. johnbunting says:

    “Why such immense complications to create human beings, when he could done it much more straightforwardly?”
    I suspect this might be almost the reverse of the truth.Terms like ‘simple’ and ‘complex’, drawn from our experience of the natural world, can be misleading if applied to matters of metaphysics. If complex creatures arose as end products of a long evolutionary process, that offers us the possibility of understanding it, step by step. If, on the other hand, complex creatures sprang into existence instantaneously, by divine fiat, then research is impossible: such an act of creation is inaccessible to natural science.

    • St.Joseph says:

      For what its worth I don’t believe that God would want His only Son to be bodily part of the animal world ,but to want Him to be part & belong to His own creation in the beginning especially as He would be part of it Himself.spiritually.

  5. Alan Pontet says:

    If, Quentin, your reference to the essentially random includes the evolution of humanity, are you including this in order to play devil’s advocate?

    I have not studied Darwin but, it seems clear to me that God’s plan specifically – not randomly, included man – otherwise the whole of God’s plan was pointless.

    So, to the non-believer, in addition to the obvious distinction of man, I put this: if I believe in God and Eternal Life, and when I die I was wrong and there is nothing, I have lost nothing but, if I am right I shall have gained everything.

    When, on the other hand, non-believers and cynics die and discover that they were wrong, they shall have lost everything, and their suffering on earth – for that is what they cause themselves to endure in their perpetual rejection of God, could continue in everlasting suffering in hell – unless, at their moment of discovering the truth, they repent sincerely and appeal to God’s mercy.

    • Alan says:

      I’ve always had the nagging feeling that the “obvious distinction of man” might only be the result of picturing posts around where the ball came to rest and then cheering “GOAL”.

      On Pascal’s Wager I am not a gambling man, but I can certainly see the value in choosing the option with the most to gain over the option that cannot possibly win. Unfortunately the sense of that doesn’t make God seem any more believable to me.

  6. As I commented in response to an earlier post :-
    “Read Genesis 1; verses 1 to 31, and you have a perfect example of how modern theories of planetary formation and of evolution can be explained to a primitive people (and even perhaps to children today). This is how I was taught as a child in school.”

  7. Claret says:

    Time is a human invention. Evolution is a theory, and an illogical one at that. It is not a prerequisite for a scientist to be an atheist.
    All we need to do is look into the heavens and ask ourselves: “who made all of this ?”

    • Vincent says:

      Time (and space) is a necessary assumption if we are to know anything of the world.

      All scientific statements are theories, dependent on evidence. No one who has studied evolution, and does not have fundamentalist agenda, denies that evolution plays the major role in the development of biological life.

      The religious man asks who made the world: the scientist asks how the world was made. The questions are different, and both are valid.

    • tyke says:

      Unfortunately, that’s not a terribly good basis for any sort of meaningful dialogue with a non-believer 😦

    • RAHNER says:

      Your comments are just embarrassing…..

    • milliganp says:

      How we measure time is a human invention but, whatever measure we use, the age of the universe is about 13.8 billion times the time it takes the earth to go round the sun. Time is part of creation and therefore a work of God.

  8. ignatius says:

    I’m not an ‘expert’ in this field but I teach anatomy, I have dissected a few cadavers, read a lot of zoology and kept up with the various evolutionary strands of thought as best I can over the years. As I have struggled to understand the complexity of the human form and its develpment what becomes apparent is that ‘life’ is a balance of forces, between physiology and physics, between large things and small things, between membranes and charges, between structure and function etc. Viewed this way we come to the understanding that the developmental process of life in all its complexity is fundamentally to do with adaptive change…we call this evolution. For things to have a real existence they must exist within in the conditions which make life possible, this balance is always a temporary best so we have upbuilding and then decay of the materials of life all as part of a process. One would think that for God to ‘intend’ a thing that thing must be capable of coming into life, forming up within the parameters that govern solid existence. Given this basic premise then the outworking of God in creation could well resemble a ‘becoming’ I don’t really see why this ‘becoming’ should not resemble evolutionary process.
    PS I bet loads of scientists have a sense of the wonder of things which they simply do not choose to analyse.

  9. tyke says:

    And what /would/ I say next ?

    I don’t pretend to be any like intelligent enough to second guess God. I don’t feel the need to have to understand why God does anything? If God really is transcendent, then I haven’t a hope in the other place anyway. And if he isn’t, then she isn’t God, so the question falls in any case. (If this sounds like a ‘get out’ then that’s because it is.)

    Having said that it is interesting to speculate. It doesn’t seem to be abnormal that God created life and humanity in a ‘natural’ way. And according to the scientists, evolution is just that… natural. What should it matter that God take eons to do so. Who’s in a hurry. As ignatius says, life is, in essence, complex so why should we expect a simple way to create it.

    And then, say God had created humanity in an instant just by saying the Word. To me, it just feels like cheating. Would such a creation have free-will? Would it have the capacity to wonder? to suffer? to love? If it knew that it was called into being, why shouldn’t the rest of the universe around it be just as artificial? Christendom, believed precisely that for centuries. But I’m ready to wager that the sense of wonder is greater today. I rather like ignatius’ image of creation as ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’.

    I just can’t see God as taking the easy way out. Creation is meaningful, or it’s a cheat. Many atheists only see the second option. But the God I believe in, loves us too much to spare any effort.

    Would Man Friday understand? Probably not. But that’s OK, because I don’t either. Understanding isn’t necessary. Wonder is.

    PS @Nektarios could you post the link to Fr Behr lecture again? I don’t seem to be able to find it. Much obliged.

  10. Alan says:

    As a sceptical islander myself I might ask – Is there something about creation that we might one day discover which would give you the impression that God wouldn’t/couldn’t have done it that way? For example if we were to discover natural conditions which encouraged the formation of RNA or DNA from simpler molecules … or if we learned that there were an infinite number of other universes out there where different natural laws applied? If not those then anything else?

    • tim says:

      Alan, that is a good question, and I am pretty sure the answer is No (perhaps the answer you were looking for?). Most Christians believe that God made the physical universe (or universes) laying down rules for its normal operation – but that He can (and sometimes does) intervene to suspend those rules. For them it is then an open question as to whether life required a miraculous intervention to get it started (whereas atheists naturally believe it can’t have). I’m not sure how we could know that there were an infinite (or very large) number of universes with different laws, but I don’t see that it makes any difference in principle – if there are, God made them too.

      • Alan says:

        Tim, not exactly an answer that I was looking for particularly but certainly the one that seemed to be the case from the responses I’ve seen here and elsewhere. I couldn’t think of any alternative myself but was interested to see if anyone else could. I have heard that there is perhaps some potential for us to examine and test the multiple universe theory. The difference I think it would make would be that it would challenge the claim (which Zenza made earlier in this thread) that things are “finely tuned” for our existence. Things are not finely tuned if there is more stuff out there than we imagined … and who would be surprised to find that, once again, our world didn’t end at this horizon?

        When asked about evidence for God people often say that it is everywhere – “Just look out of the window” is the common call – but it seems that it doesn’t matter at all what the view out of the window is.

    • milliganp says:

      Ultimately you can’t disprove something external to our scientific experience such as God. Similarly, a credible multiverse theory should be impossible to verify by experiment and a multiverse does not per-se negate the existence of an ultimate creator.
      What could happen is that we disprove particular aspects of faith. e.g. if a verifiable tomb of Jesus could be found, Christianity would be in difficulty. There is already credible historic and archaeological research which disputes the existence of David as a king. However faiths have a habit of defying rationality. St Paul expected the second coming to be an imminent event, and two thousand years later we all presume it won’t happen in our lifetime but still profess Paul’s faith. This tenacity in holding onto the need for the Divine might itself be the strongest argument for the existence of God – our hearts are restless.

  11. RAHNER says:

    Clearly this is a highly speculative topic.But perhaps one reason why the universe is so large and so old is that God, having set the fundamental parameters of this (and other universes?), can then rely on a very large number of causal interactions (some of which involve random/chaotic processes) in a large universe over time so that in some finely limited circumstances complex molecules, life and consciousness can emerge without the need for a specific divine “intervention”.

    • milliganp says:

      If the heart of creation is the statement “if I make it big enough, every possibility will occur” I can’t see the idea of a particular, personal, rational God who establishes a chosen race and prepares creation for the incarnation. A creation without a guiding hand seems empty of God.

      • RAHNER says:

        God has only “chosen” and “prepared” in a highly metaphorical sense.And in any case do you see the “guiding hand” of an omnipotent God in the natural evils beyond human control that have caused suffering and death to billions of human beings across history?

      • milliganp says:

        Everybody dies of something. I’m not sure I’d like to draw the line between a reasonable and unreasonable death. To the Christian the crucifixion tells us that God was willing to suffer an excruciating unreasonable death as both sign and atonement.

  12. Nektarios says:

    Quentin
    I did as you said, as I usually do to get a link, but this link also produces the picture with the link ready but as you can see, the link URL is not there, yet that is what I asked my computer to do.
    One finds this if one extracts it as an item from a website. You has it with two I previously posted they too were extracted from webpages with one URL. sorry about that.
    I will need to make sure you only get a link next time I post a link in. Thank you and apologies.

    • tyke says:

      Thanks very much Nektarios. This was most thought provoking.

      For anyone else that arrived too late http[REPLACETHISWITHACOLON]//www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Gy-gCEWh5-4

  13. Quentin says:

    Here is a little more speculation. If God decided to create living species through a process of inheritance in which progeny would receive a mix of characteristics from its immediate forebears, it’s difficult to see how the survival of the fittest mix could be avoided. So, instead of seeing the process as destruction of the weakest, we can see it as a necessary, automatic, process of self-correction.

    While we might see evolution as an immensely complex and diverse process it is at its heart based on this very simple characteristic.

    Are we helped by an analogy with computers? In human terms we see computers as being able to cope with extremely complex work, and to be at home with staggering amounts of data. Yet at heart it is laughingly simple: it depends only on the difference between 0 and 1 or, if you like, whether a switch is off or on. The fact that this distinction can occur billions of times in minute fractions of a second, does not affect the principle at all.

    • John L says:

      I agree with you absolutely, Quentin. I cannot see how evolution could proceed without the principle of the survival of the fittest.
      Human eugenicists (I think) would like to preserve that principle amongst the rest of us.
      Our Lord taught the opposite, and on the whole we prefer his approach. I can’t help wondering, though, what effects this has on the purely physical race as opposed to the spiritual dimension. It must be one of the many factors which contribute to a secular view.
      As has been remarked by others, only a Divine Plan seems able to lead us forward.
      I liked your computer analogy – spot on !

      • milliganp says:

        We talk about the arrow of time, and evolution, via natural selection provides a similar function. The contradiction that has always puzzled me is that the second law of thermodynamics says entropy (confusion) always increases and bioligical systems work in reverse- complexity increases over time.

      • Alan says:

        The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies specifically to closed or isolated systems. The biology of Earth an open system – open to a source of energy from outside, predominantly the Sun. In such an open system local entropy (that of a living thing for example) can decrease without breaking the law. Cut biology off from an external source of energy and we would expect that closed system to obey the law and descend into greater disorder as a whole.

      • tyke says:

        The second law of thermodynamics comes from modelling ‘ideal’ gasses. It’s a (common) mistake to apply it indiscriminately to other disciplines.

        For example, the universe as a whole is a closed system. At the instance of the Big Bang it had no structure. But nevertheless structure (= complexity) have progressively appeared since then with clusters, galaxies, stars, planets, … life.

        In particular, ‘life’ can’t just be modelled by random elastic collisions between ideal particles. Any more than we can establish the quantum wave function of, say, a tree or a person.

  14. Iona says:

    There seems to be an assumption in some of the postings above that God’s intention was primarily (or solely) to create human beings, and that it therefore seems odd that He went about it in such a roundabout way. I don’t think this is a necessary assumption. He has created a whole complex of human beings, seahorses, ostriches, snow, banyan trees, comets, dark matter (whatever that is) (to pick out a few things at random) for reasons best known to Himself. Maybe He wants us to look at it all, and investigate it as best we can, and comment “Well, ain’t it wonderful?” I think it’s a Buddhist, or perhaps a Hindu, idea that God creates while playing; or that He dances the universe into existence. Maybe He’s saying to us: “Look, look! Nothing up my sleeve!”

    • milliganp says:

      The biblical idea is that creation was made with man as its summit and ultimate purpose. If creation had simple limits we could work it out and either find the boundaries or end up with a conundrum that renders faith meaningless. It may be the complexity is there so that there is always more to know and learn. However I do like the “nothing up my sleeve” analogy, I don’t think God allows cheating!

  15. Ignatius says:

    Iona:
    “don’t think this is a necessary assumption. He has created a whole complex of human beings, seahorses, ostriches, snow, banyan trees, comets, dark matter (whatever that is) (to pick out a few things at random) for reasons best known to Himself. Maybe He wants us to look at it all, and investigate it as best we can, and comment “Well, ain’t it wonderful?” I think it’s a Buddhist, or perhaps a Hindu, idea that God creates while playing; or that He dances the universe into existence. Maybe He’s saying to us: “Look, look! Nothing up my sleeve!”

    Ha ha, that is a wonderful image of God, I really like it, nothing up my sleeve either gal….!

  16. Ignatius says:

    But isn’t it astonishing, no cheating, no short cuts – no fundamentalist magic , just the slow steady and utterly wonderful unfurling of God in creation. I came to the conclusion awhile ago that if God can come in a piece of bread then he can pretty much tip up however he likes. But the ‘however he likes’ must be by a process of truth, evolution seems to me the way we try and understand this process of truth coming into time, space and matter .’.Look’ says God, “Nothing up my sleeve, what you see is what you get”
    “Naah” we say: “C,mon God…where’s the catch?!!!”

  17. Iona says:

    Even with all the seahorses, ostriches, comets and dark matter, even with Man having evolved on a small planet in the unfashionable arm of a not-too-impressive galaxy, he can still in a sense be the summit and ultimate purpose of creation in that it is only Man (so far as we know) who can reflect on creation.

    • Quentin says:

      L’homme n’est qu’un roseau le plus faible de la nature ; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser. Une vapeur, une goutte d’eau suffit pour le tuer. Mais quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue; parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt ; et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien.

      (Blaise Pascal)

      The man is only the most feeble reed in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

  18. Nektarios says:

    This world and universe are indeed a matter of the`fiats’ of God, however man is not.
    Consider what the Word of God says: Let there be light, and there was light… and so on.
    There are some of the fiats of God we know about in creation.
    When it comes to creation of Man, God does not say, `let there be.’
    He is having a discussion in the Godhead that we only have the conclusion of…`Let us make man in our own image’.
    How earthbound we have become in our thinking on this universe and so on. We have made too much of this world, which is to reflect God’s glory, but we have got bogged down with the material aspects of it; a world we will spend so little time on, then have to leave and return to the spiritual dimension.

  19. Iona says:

    Merci bien, Pascal!

    And thank you, Nektarios, for pointing out the difference between the creation of “things”, “let there be…”, and of mankind, “Let us make… In our own image”.

  20. ignatius says:

    MilliganP

    “…We talk about the arrow of time, and evolution, via natural selection provides a similar function. The contradiction that has always puzzled me is that the second law of thermodynamics says entropy (confusion) always increases and bioligical systems work in reverse- complexity increases over time….”

    You’ll understand this better than me I’m sure, when I ask learned people this question (and I have asked it a lot) I am told that there are loops or ‘eddies’ in entropy so that the whole thing has to disperse because the higher complexity stuff increases the entropy of the whole but not in a linear way

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