Reality is a Story

This is Part 1 in a series of posts on Deeper than Darwin, by John F. Haught. Haught is a professor at Georgetown and director of the Study of Science and Religion there.

John Haught writes as someone who completely embraces Darwinian evolution, but thinks many scientists propound evolution without depth and insight.  He believes that religion enhances our understanding of evolution, and evolution enriches our understanding of religion. He’s a Christian but not a biblical Christian. I’ll say more about that in a later post. Meanwhile I want to emphasize that he has a lot to say that I found helpful.

His greatest insight is that evolution tells a story. “In a most startling way, Darwin awakened us to narrative depths of nature that had been invisible throughout most of human history.” [Deeper, 149] The world does not exist in a steady state. Rather evolutionary science reveals a universe struggling to become something new. This is a story full of violence and death, with growing complexity, beauty and consciousness. It is a story whose end we do not know—it goes on.

Haught emphasizes that stories can be read at multiple levels. Moby Dick is an adventure tale of a great white whale—and one can read it at that level, as I did in high school. But it is also a parable filled with symbolism and archetype. Reading it at that level does not negate the adventure tale, but it adds depth and meaning. If someone were to insist that the adventure plot is the only level at which the story can be read, they would miss much of Herman Melville’s artistry.

So it is with evolution. Read at one level, Haught says, it is a story of chemistry at work—random mutations of complex molecules, blind selection of those that are fit to survive. And that is an accurate reading, as far as it goes. But that is not far enough.

Haught criticizes Darwinism on much the same ground as he criticizes Intelligent Design. Materialist evolutionists like Dawkins and Dennett insist that material explanation must also be metaphysical explanation. There is only one level to read the story, they say, and it tells you everything. Once you have figured out the chemistry, there is nothing more to learn. So, in their way, do proponents of intelligent design. They agree with materialist evolutionists: if you can explain everything through chemistry, there is no God. But Haught wants to show that chemistry is only one level for reading the story; what the chemistry means is quite another.

He is not saying (as some do) that science and religion live on different planes—of, say, fact and value–and therefore don’t intersect. Both science and religion speak of what really is, Haught says, and therefore intersect at every point. But they are different ways to read the same story.

When you merge science and metaphysics the way Dawkins does, you end up banishing life. Everything living becomes understood as a mechanism through which chemistry operates. It is interesting that Dawkins is drawn to the language of the selfish gene, because “selfishness” suggests a willful purpose. But that is a property of living things—and a gene is not actuated by purpose or feeling. DNA is, after all, just chemistry. Darwinists like Dawkins treat living things as mere agents of blind chemical factors, but they can’t help enduing blind chemistry with the values and purpose of living things!  Of course, if you call them on this they will say it is just a rhetorical flourish—but it is telling how often they use the language of living, purposeful creatures when talking about chemical agents. It suggests that they have not told the story in quite the right way.

We know that living things have purpose, feelings, intelligence, consciousness, even religion—but if you read creation only at the level of chemistry, you find only chemistry. Which is fine, as long as you don’t think you have written a treatise on God or on life.

“Materialist metaphysics, after all, cannot seriously claim to be proportionate to the opulence of evolution…. It is simply incapable of doing justice to what we all actually experience as the rich reality of actual life. It seeks to purchase intellectual clarity by leaving out the novelty, striving, cooperativeness, relationality and indeterminacy characteristic of living beings and process. … Almost by definition, scientific materialism leaves out almost everything that our inherited wisdom and ethics mean by ‘life.’” [Deeper, 129]

Intelligent Design, also merging chemistry with metaphysics, finds an engineering God. One problem, Haught says, is that God becomes less than himself. He is merely a designer, not a storyteller who knows pain and understands ambiguity. “If everything at the moment were perfectly clear, completely ordered or mathematically certain, there would be no promise of a future.” [Deeper, 39]

And further, ID misses violence, death, and struggle, the blind and stumbling pathway that evolution shows to have been reality—and to be reality into the present. If the universe is the product of an engineer, he has a lot to answer for. Story writers include many things good and bad, light and dark. But good engineers anticipate problems and eliminate them.

Reality understood as a story has room for pain, struggle, uncertain outcomes, violence, death. It has room for chemical description—purely mechanical events—but also room to read those events for deeper meaning.

Next: where is God in the evolutionary story?

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7 Responses to “Reality is a Story”

  1. Trevis Litherland Says:

    Tim,

    Haught has been one of my favorite writers on the intersection of evolution and religion since I came across Deeper Than Darwin at a used bookstore in Ithaca in 2006. Ironically, I was there at the time attending a two-week seminar at Cornell on the applications of probability theory (my own field) to genetics and evolutionary biology. I wish I could easily convey to the layman just how beautiful and powerful some of the mathematical models of evolutionary biology actually are.

    But mathematics aside, I also “deeply” appreciate Haught’s emphasis of the idea of narrative — the universe does more and more seem to have just such a quality to it, one which equations can’t fully capture. And it is, of course, in just such a way that a reading of nature comports well with the narrative quality inherent in the Biblical tradition.

    I look forward to your future posts on the topic.

  2. creationbydesign Says:

    Intelligent Design, also merging chemistry with metaphysics, finds an engineering God. One problem, Haught says, is that God becomes less than himself. He is merely a designer, not a storyteller who knows pain and understands ambiguity. “If everything at the moment were perfectly clear, completely ordered or mathematically certain, there would be no promise of a future.” [Deeper, 39]

    I’ve read Fr. Haught’s speculations on this topic before and I find that he adds more confusion rather than clarity. For example, in the above statement, he thinks that Intelligent Design is reducing the mystery found in nature. But it’s Darwinism (which he supports) that reduces nature to mechanism alone. If nature is simply the result of material processes alone, then there is no future. This is the obvious conclusion of atheistic-evolution. We are reduced to matter and natural laws.
    Intelligent Design merely points to indicators that nature is more than a product of natural laws working on matter.

    the blind and stumbling pathway that evolution shows to have been reality

    What Intelligent Design shows also is that the “blind and stumbling pathway” cannot produce the specified, complexity of molecular machines or the genetic information found in the cell.

    When Fr. Haught refers to natural laws as “blind”, he removes God from nature entirely. But that is the necessary consequence of Darwinian belief.

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks for this reply. Haught would see the first part as a perfect example of mixing up chemistry and metaphysics. Don’t forget that gravity is a mechanical process too. But we don’t necessarily read it as excluding God.

      As to the blind and stumbling pathway…. biologists do overwhelmingly believe this created the specified complexity of molecular machines. I’m no biologist, but I’m impressed by their confidence. And Haught raises the question whether there is a way to accept their findings and still believe in God. That interests me.

  3. creationbydesign Says:

    I can respect the effort to try to reconcile evolutionary claims with theology. The claims for evolution are an interpretation of the data, and I think they can be questioned. Gravity is a mechanical process that produces results which are observable and predictable. The same cannot be said for the speculations of evolutionary theory. Specified complexity is found at the molecular level but also at the level of fully integrated human life. In other words, a human person cannot be reduced to matter and blind, physical laws alone. To do so is to remove human spirituality itself (thus, in subject matter, evolution is far different from gravity).
    Again, I can understand the concern and the desire to reconcile belief with mainstream science. From my view, mainstream evolutionary-science has its own bias so I do not agree that its worth accepting it at face value. But I do understand where others disagree — and I appreciate your thoughtful reply on this also.

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks for your reply and the very thoughtful tone. You’re getting at something very important there, which I would state this way: “Can human beings be understood through science?” Obviously they can be partly understood–but can they be thoroughly understood? And if not, how do we express the boundaries where science is competent and where it is not? Without creating a God of the gaps? In his own way, Haught is trying to get at that question, because though he thoroughly accepts evolution he also clearly does not think material evolution alone can adequately describe life.

  4. creationbydesign Says:

    p.s. I will look forward to your next post which should address this from a different angle. Thanks.

  5. Evolution In the Church « As the Deer Says:

    […] In the Church Tim Stafford continues to study evolution and religion.  Lately he is reading John Haught’s book Deeper than Darwin. The world does not exist in a steady state. Rather evolutionary science reveals a universe […]

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