Theology and Evolution: How Much Can Biology Explain?

Theology and Evolution: How Much Can Biology Explain?

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“. . . with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” (Charles Darwin)1

In 1715 Isaac Watts wrote a Christian hymn beginning with this stanza:

I sing the mighty power of God
That made the mountains rise
That spread the flowing seas abroad
And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at his command
And all the stars obey.

In 1975 Kenneth Boulding offered a new version:

What though the mountains are pushed up
By plate-tectonic lift,
And oceans lie within the cup
Made by the landmass drift.
The skies are but earth’s airy skin
Rotation makes the day;
Sun, moon, and planets are akin
And Kepler’s Laws obey.2

Boulding does not say whether the sentiments expressed in his update are really his own, but his tongue-in-cheek rendition expresses succinctly the worldview known as “scientific naturalism.” This label is apparently the invention of Charles Darwin’s famous advocate, Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895).3 It is the belief that nature is all there is and that science alone can make sense of it.  Some scientific naturalists are willing to keep singing the old hymns.  Even though the lyrics no longer ring true, they still warm the heart.  Others, however, insist that it is time to stop singing them altogether.  There can be no harmonizing of Watts’ stanza with Boulding’s.  Nature is enough.

Naturalism comes in many flavors but in philosophical discourse today the term generally signifies a Godless view of the universe. For example, when the philosopher Owen Flanagan states that the mission of contemporary philosophy is to make the world safe for “naturalism,” he clearly means safe for atheism.4  And in the popular religious writings of C. S. Lewis “naturalism” is taken as the repudiation of each and every theological interpretation of the world.5  Its core teachings are these:6

1. Outside of nature, which includes humans and their cultural creations, there is nothing.
2. It follows from #1 that nature is self-originating. 
3. Since there is nothing beyond nature, there can be no overarching purpose or goal that would give any lasting meaning to the universe. 
4. There is no such thing as the “soul,” and no reasonable prospect of conscious human survival beyond death.
5.  The emergence of life and mind in evolution was accidental and unintended.

What I am calling “scientific naturalism” accepts these five tenets, but adds two more:

6. Every natural event is itself a product of other natural events. Since there is no divine cause, all causes are purely natural causes, in principle accessible to scientific comprehension.
7. All the various features of living beings, including humans, can be explained ultimately in evolutionary, specifically Darwinian, terms.  This belief may be called “evolutionary naturalism.”

Is scientific naturalism a reasonable worldview?  Let me assume, for the sake of discussion, that you are a scientific naturalist, and allow me to speak to you directly.  As you have been listening to this lecture your mind has been following an invariant sequence of cognitional acts. (1) You have attended to and experienced the words and sentences I have vocalized. (2) Then you have tried to understand what I am saying, looking for something intelligible. (3) Finally, if you have understood anything I have said so far, you have probably also asked whether my understanding is correct, or at least whether your own understanding of my ideas is accurate.  In either case you have spontaneously subjected your understanding and mine to critical questioning.  And your spirit of criticism may have led you to the judgment that I am either right or wrong.7

So your mind has spontaneously unfolded in three distinct acts of cognition: experience, understanding and judgment.  Since you are capable not only of insight and critical reflection but also of acting in the world, you are called upon at times to decide what course of action to follow.  So decision is a fourth cognitional act.  Elsewhere I say much about decision and whether naturalism can provide an adequate account of our moral life,8 but my focus here will be on understanding the first three levels of cognition.

You may never have noticed it before, but your mind cannot help executing the three distinct but complementary acts: experience, understanding and judgment.  This is because there are persistent and ineradicable imperatives at the foundation of your consciousness.  These im­peratives, along with the associated cognitional acts are these:

(1)  Be attentive!     —>         experience
(2)  Be intelligent!   —>         understanding
(3)  Be critical!        —>         judgment

The fourth set (not examined here) is:

(4)  Be responsible!  —>     decision

These cognitional acts, along with the imperatives that give rise to them, make up what I shall be calling critical intelligence (following Bernard Lonergan).  It is not enough to call your mental functioning simply “intelligence,” since you can be intelligent, insightful and even ingenious without being right.  It is your critical intelligence, concerned as it is with true understanding, that I wish to highlight.  An even fuller designation of your mental life would be “open, critical and responsible intelligence,” but here I shall be satisfied with the simpler label.

The imperatives to be attentive, intelligent and critical flow from a single deep longing that lies at the heart of each person’s intellectual life.  Since ancient times this longing has been known as the desire to know.  It is the root of science and all other rational pursuits.  Science, for example, begins with experience, propelled by the imperative to be open and attentive.  We may call this the empirical imperative.  It turns the scientist’s mind toward data that science needs to understand.  And if scientists reach insight into, or understanding of, the data, they express it in propositions known as hypotheses and theories.  But science does not stop there, since not every bright idea is a true idea.  A third imperative—be critical!—prods the scientist to reflect on whether the hypotheses or theories are correct.  Scientific understanding must be subjected continually to verification (or falsification).  Only after undertaking a rigorous criticism of one’s ideas, often requiring evaluation by others or publication in peer-reviewed journals, will it be appropriate to render at least a tentative judgment that one’s scientific ideas are true or false.

Science, of course, is much more nuanced than this.  I wish only to make the point that scientific procedure illustrates how closely the human mind adheres to the three-fold cognitional structure and its persistent imperatives.  But this invariant pattern is also operative in common sense, philosophy and other forms of cognition.  It has been operating in you all the while you have been listening to this lecture.  You have experienced the words and sentences I am expressing—following the imperative to be attentive.  You have then tried to understand the words and sentences—following the imperative to be intelligent.  And now—in obedience to the imperative to be critical—you are asking whether what I’m saying is true.  So you can immediately identify the three-fold cognitional pattern in the actual performance of your own critical intelligence this instant.  For the moment it does not matter how your mind evolved, or what the cultural factors in its genesis may have been.  These are important issues also, but for our immediate purposes it will be helpful to notice only how your critical intelligence is functioning presently.

Perhaps you have never attended to your mental operations in this immediate way before.  You may never have turned your attention to the fact that your mind is continually prodded by hidden imperatives.  Yet even if you have never adverted to them in the past, you will now discover that you cannot escape them.  You may at times have failed to obey the imperatives to be attentive, intelligent and critical, but their presence has been operative even when their voice has been muffled.  If you are now doubting what I’ve just said it is because you are being attentive, intelligent and critical—in response to your own mind’s imperatives.  No matter how many doubts and uncertainties you have about everything else, you cannot deny the three-fold cognitional structure of your own critical intelligence without employing it even in the act of doubting it.

The next point I want to make, then, is that you cannot help trusting in the imperatives of your mind.  Without having made a tacit act of faith in your own critical intelligence you would not have bothered to follow me up to this point.  You would not have asked whether I’m making any sense, or whether I may be pulling the wool over your eyes.  Your whole cognitional performance depends on a deeply personal confidence in your own intelligence and critical capacities.  Unless you had already placed some degree of trust in your cognitional ability you would hardly even have bothered to ask any questions at all.  But how do you justify this trust?  I can imagine that seasoned philosophers or scientific thinkers, after hearing what I’m saying in this talk, will try to refute the claims I am making.   But such refutation will arise only because my critics also trust their own minds’ imperatives to be attentive, intelligent and critical. And if my critics espouse scientific naturalism can this worldview adequately ground the cognitional confidence that underlies their own judgment that I am wrong?

Is Naturalism True?

If you embrace the belief system known as scientific naturalism, have you ever asked whether it coheres logically with the invariant structure of your cognitional life?  Let me put my question another way: Is the essentially mindless, purposeless, self-originating, self-enclosed universe of scientific naturalism large enough to house your own critical intelligence?  If not, truthfulness compels you to conclude that naturalism is an unreasonable creed.  Your formal understanding of the world—your worldview, if you will—must not be such as to contradict the way the mind functions when it seeks knowledge of the world.  Nor must your worldview have the effect of subverting the confidence that underlies the thought processes that give rise to that worldview.  That Charles Darwin himself considered this to be a serious consideration is evident in the citation given at the head of this chapter.

So, does scientific naturalism support or subvert your desire to know?  I don’t know what your own response will be, but after struggling with this question for many years, I have concluded that the universe as conceived by scientific naturalism is quite clearly incompatible with the critical intelligence with which I attempt to understand that universe.  More strongly stated, a consistent acceptance of scientific naturalism logically impairs the trust that underlies my attempts to understand and know the world. Only those views of reality that are logically consistent with, and lend support to, the desire to know and the mind’s imperatives can be called truthful.

Truth can be defined as the objective or goal of the pure desire to know, and the fundamental criterion of truth is fidelity to the desire to know and obedience to the imperatives of the mind.  So, at the very least, in order to pass the test of reasonableness, any belief system that you cling to must be congruent with your desire to know and the imperatives of your mind.  If a specific set of beliefs fails to support the interests of your desire to know, or if it undermines the confidence and trust in the cognitional imperatives that lead you toward open-minded and critical exploration of reality, then it is inconsistent with the fundamental criterion of truth, namely, fidelity to the desire to know.9

Can you, then, consistently and coherently claim to be both a naturalist and, at the same time, completely faithful to your own desire to know?  Not only naturalists but religious believers also need to ask whether their explicit beliefs correspond to the interests of the mind’s imperatives.  If not, then these beliefs must be declared unreasonable also, and lovers of truth must disown them.  What one believes to be ultimate reality must not function in such a way as to contravene the restless longing for truth that we have just identified as the desire to know.  Hence, one might also examine religious beliefs, and not just naturalism, from the point of view of whether and how these may be serving the interests of the desire to know, or perhaps following other desires.  Not a few studies have argued, after all, that religion can indeed satisfy the desire for pleasure (Freud), consolation (Marx), revenge (Nietzsche) or meaning (Frankl, Berger, Shermer).10  And the severest critics of religion have argued in effect that if belief in God is inconsistent with the desire to know, then it must be abandoned.  I would agree.  Seldom, however, has scientific naturalism been subjected to the same rigorous standard of authentication.

In real life, as each of us knows, the desire to know must con­tinually compete with opposing tendencies.  While it is essentially pure and detached, in our actual existence the desire to know is always entangled with other longings.  We have to struggle throughout our lives to decouple the innate intentionality of the desire to know from other urges that promise easy but evanescent satisfaction.  As the Danish philosopher S¯ren Kierkegaard puts it, “it is far from being the case that men in general regard relationship to the truth as the highest good, and it is far from being the case that they, Socratically, regard being under a delusion as the greatest misfortune.”11  Nonetheless, it is possible, as you can tell from the exercise with which I opened this lecture, to identify the imperatives of your own mind and their intention to put you in touch with reality. Once again, reality means that which is intended by your desire to know.   If you are still questioning whether this is true, it can only be because your own desire to know is at this moment seeking to know what is really the case.  So the evidence is right there in front of you at this very instant. 

Moreover, as further reflection will show, the desire to know intends nothing less than the fullness of being.  This is why any arbitrary imposition of boundaries on the desire to know is an act of violence, inconsistent with truth-seeking.  The desire to know is anticipatory rather than possessive.  It is most at home where there is an openness to a limitless horizon of being, and it begins to feel cramped whenever it hears phrases such as “enough,” “nothing but,” or “all there is.”

Linking Intelligence to the Emergent Universe

It is not necessary at this point to specify the evolutionary, cultural, historical and social processes that went into the making of your critical intelligence, important and fascinating as all this may be.  For now it is sufficient simply to be fully aware, first, of the presence of a desire to know at the core of your own being and, second, that this desire is as much a part of the natural world as are trees and toads.  Your critical intelligence is not hovering somewhere outside of nature.  It is nature, in the same way that stars and rivers are nature.  It should not be hard for the naturalist to accept this premise, since nature is supposedly all there is.  However, since critical intelligence is so intimately entangled with the rest of nature—a point that both biology and cosmology have confirmed in great detail—what we can find out by looking closely at critical intelligence will also be relevant to understanding the whole natural world with which it is so intimately interlaced. 

In fact, the most illuminating access each of us has to the natural world is the portal of our own critical intelligence, so why leave this emerald of evolution out of our picture of nature as though it were not part of it?  Science generally does just that, and for its limited purposes such a methodological exclusion seems appropriate.  But how could we profess to be fully open to the data of experience—in obedience to the mind’s first imperative—if we deliberately refused to focus on what, to each critically intelligent subject, is the most stunning of nature’s inventions?  My point is that if we do attend fully to our critical intelligence, and if we try seriously to integrate it into our understanding of nature, the naturalistic approach to the world will be exposed as insufficiently attentive, intelligent and critical. 

In terms of natural history, of course, it is clear that our critical intelligence emerged from a universe that was formerly lifeless and mindless. But in order to account for the trust each of us places in our critical intelligence it is not enough to assert that the ultimate ground of our desire to know is a lifeless and mindless causal past.  If the ultimate cause of mind is mindlessness, we would still need to look for reasons sufficient to explain why we should trust our minds here and now, as Darwin himself insinuates.  Fully justifying the obvious acts of faith that we place in our critical intelligence requires that we situate human cognitional life, and along with it the whole universe, in a more spacious environment than the one laid out by scientific naturalism.  I believe it will be essential to call upon theology to accomplish this expansion.
A Richer Empiricism

If we truly intend to understand the universe, we  can no longer pretend that it has no essential connection to critical intelligence.  And once we re-establish the connection between the latter and nature as a whole, it will be possible to see more clearly that the same horizon of truth and being that arouses the imperatives of the mind has also been hiddenly involved in cosmic history throughout.  The work of fashioning the cerebral apparatus that underpins human consciousness has been going on, as it now appears, for some fourteen billion years.  And so, the emergence of critical intelligence must be located within the context of the larger cosmic epic.  Likewise the cosmic story cannot be told well if we leave out any mention of the recent eruption of a restless desire to know.

Modern naturalism, however, fails to explore in sufficient depth the intimate connection between critical intelligence and its cosmic matrix.  In a crudely physicalist sense, of course, naturalists agree that mind is part of nature.  But they seldom look closely at what is implied about the cosmos in the actual performance of critical intelligence.  Indeed naturalism’s typical portrait of the universe is one in which critical intelligence is virtually absent from the seamless web of natural phenomena.  The philosophical difficulty arising from this virtual exiling of mind from nature is that it leaves naturalism with no illuminating explanatory categories to account robustly for what is most obvious in the experience of each of us—our actual intelligent functioning.  After imaginatively sweeping the cosmos clean of subjects, the explanatory program of naturalists, including many neuroscientists and cognitive scientists today, is to show how subjective consciousness—which we all know performatively to be quite real—can come into existence out of a natural process divested from the start of any traces or anticipations of mind.  To set the problem of mind’s existence up in the manner of this essentially materialist outlook is to prepare the stage for magic rather than explanation.

The habit of looking away from the subjectivity near at hand, as though it does not really exist in nature, is being shored up today by a Darwinian naturalism that regards only the historical or algorithmic past as adequate for understanding the present.12  However, without denying the importance of historical or evolutionary accounts, a rich empiricism surveys the history of life and the natural world without ever turning away its eyes, even for a moment, from the present actuality of our own critical intelligence.  Any adequate explanation of nature must explain all of its outcomes, and in doing so it does not help matters to place in brackets the novel emergent reality of mental existence and then try to account for it solely in terms of what is purely mindless. 

A richer empiricism, on the other hand, is so sensitive to the mind’s imperative to be open to the full range of experience that it always keeps the fact of our critical intelligence in the foreground as it looks backward into nature’s past.  Scientific naturalism sidesteps this stereoscopic approach.  This is why, in the end, it finally has to resort to magic in its own accounts of intelligence.  Expelling subjectivity completely from its visual field at the outset, naturalism can only meet defeat when it approaches the irreducible fact of critical intelligence.13  Scientific naturalism does not possess the conceptual tools to bridge the gap between the third-person language about physical or evolutionary causes on the one hand, and the first person discourse of intelligent subjects about their inner experience on the other.  As the naturalist philosopher John R. Searle admits, these disparate perspectives point to two different modes of existence: “Conscious states have a subjective mode of existence in the sense that they exist only when they are experienced by a human or animal subject.  In this respect they differ from nearly all the rest of the universe.”  It is not helpful, however, when Searle goes on to suggest that a scientific study of mind can in some sense bridge the gulf between the subjective and objective.  After all, the sciences, including neuroscience, are inevitably third person approaches.  Scientific objectivity can help explain why minds fail, and it can uncover the physical conditions required for mental functioning.  But an objectifying study of mind can never lead incrementally to the experience of being a critically intelligent subject.14

Instead of stretching and straining a fundamentally materialist naturalism to fit the amazing feats of mind, as Searle does, I suggest that it is time for philosophers of mind to look for a world-view that can encompass both critical intelligence and the entire cosmic process in a way that avoids the de facto dualism to which many of them, including hard materialists, have become resigned.  The perspective I am laying out here is one that starts by looking closely at the structure of critical intelligence.  Only after undertaking a general empirical survey inclusive of subjective existence can one expect to understand the cosmos in its fullest dimensions. Simply reciting the usual evolutionary factors is scarcely enough to help us understand how mindless objects can be transformed into sentient, intelligent and critical subjects.  A richer explanatory framework is needed to avoid the appeal to miraculous leaps.  Explanatory adequacy must somehow make the categories of intelligence and subjectivity fundamental to the makeup of true being rather than derivative aspects of an originally senseless reality.

Naturalists, of course, will not agree with my proposal.  They will not give up their belief that the fundamental causes of intelligence are themselves completely unintelligent.  This means, however, that naturalists are compelled to explain intelligent subjectivity ultimately in terms of processes and events that lack both intelligence and subjectivity.  How then can the appearance of sorcery be avoided? A series of blind and unintelligent causes of mind, no matter how temporally prolonged and gradual in cumulative effect, would never add up to a sufficient reason for putting the kind of confidence in their own intellectual functioning that naturalists in fact do when they offer such an account.  Given the story they tell about the unconscious physical foundations and mindless evolutionary fashioning of their own minds, naturalists must look elsewhere to justify the colossal confidence they place in their own minds.  Calling mind a fluke, as some evolutionists do, will hardly suffice.  As long as they ground their own critical intelligence ultimately either in blind natural selection or a series of accidents, or both, I can see no reason why anyone, least of all they themselves, could ever trust so unflinchingly the operations of their own critical intelligence.  Naturalists will tell me that their position is true and mine is false.  They are completely confident that the mind can be naturalized, that is, fully explained in terms of what is physically or cosmologically earlier-and-simpler than mind.  But what is there in this fundamentally unconscious cosmic background, or in the cultures that this unconscious foundation brought into being through the mediation of minds, that could have instilled in them their cognitional confidence? 

After many years of looking at naturalistic writings I have yet to find a reasonable answer.  Instead I find magic everywhere.  In almost every case, to put it bluntly, the naturalist’s account of the origin of mind is one in which I am asked to believe that the lustrous gold of critical intelligence “emerges” from the dross of pure mindlessness without also being shown how such alchemy actually works.  Invoking the ideas of deep time and emergence to “explain” how matter can become minds does nothing to dispel the aura of miracle that hovers over the whole show.  The naturalist’s actual, here-and-now intellectual performance is so utterly discontinuous with the set of materials out of which it is said to have been processed that it places in serious doubt any claim that naturalism is a reasonable philosophy of nature. 

Notice, however, that I am not at all denying the power and importance of evolutionary explanations.  I am only questioning the coherence of evolutionary naturalism.  I have said nothing to discredit or discourage the ongoing scientific search for the details of the story that led up to the birth of intelligence.  Evolutionary accounts are essential to adequate understanding of all living phenomena.  But unless a stereoscopic empiricism and a richly layered method of explanation are allowed to supplement the conventional scientific way of seeing and understanding, evolutionary accounts will still sound like sheer divination.  A more radically empirical method of inquiry and a proportionately expansive metaphysics are needed.

The Need for Theology

A fuller explanation of nature, one that can account for the element of anticipation in life, emergence, evolution and intelligence, requires, in addition to scientific study, the illumination of a theological worldview.  The place of theological explanation is to make ultimate sense of the anticipatory aspect of both nature and mind.  It can give a good reason for the existence of a realm of potentiality that allows the world to be anticipatory. This potentiality, though not actual, is not the same as sheer nothingness, and so it must have a ground in reality.  Theology gives the name God to the source and reservoir of all possibilities.  It is the abiding presence of new possibilities on the horizon of the cosmic and evolutionary future that arouses our own sense of anticipation, and at least in some analogous way the leaning of all things toward the future.  Rather than reducing the fact of our own subjective anticipation to a ghostly shadow hovering over a mindless universe, theology can make anticipation fundamental to everything going on in nature.  Anticipation is what bears the universe along as it reaches out toward fuller being.  No doubt, the actualizing in cosmic history of explicitly conscious instances of anticipation is all very uncertain and frothed with contingency.  Historically speaking, there can be no doubt that the cosmos was devoid of actual intelligent subjects until recently.  From the point of view of natural history the road from primal radiation to the emergence of thought has not been smooth or devoid of setbacks.  But the domain of possibilities that eventually drew forth conscious anticipation has been present and quietly influential always. 

Of all natural phenomena our minds are perhaps the most fragile, at least from a physicalist point of view.  But their fragility is in direct proportion to their splendor, and their splendor is inseparable from the fullness toward which they aspire but cannot own.  Like a flower blossoming momentarily in bright sunshine, critical intelligence feels the call of being, meaning, goodness, beauty and truth only for a season.  But in its response to this transcendental environment the restlessness of the whole universe rushes toward the future.  In the mind’s anticipation of truth, goodness and beauty the entire cosmic process is drawn toward the goal it has silently sought perpetually. 

To the naturalist, obviously, the appeal to such a theological understanding will seem to be an unwarranted leap.  But here my leap, if you want to call it that, consists only of ensuring that all necessary and relevant categories for robust explanation are loaded in at the beginning rather than invented in midstream during the explanatory process.  We are obliged after all to understand the totality of nature, and this includes critically intelligent subjectivity.  The merit of theological explanation is that it has no need to invent ad hoc concepts to explain critical intelligence.  Something causally proportionate to this inestimably precious phenomenon has always been silently, persuasively and noncoercively proposing new possibilities to the cosmic process.  When critical intelligence did eventually arise in cosmic history it was ultimately because the universe had been charged with the ingredients for its arrival from the moment of creation—“in the beginning was the Word.”  Moreover, the advantage of a theological understanding is that it can explain, in a way that naturalism cannot, why the intelligent subject spontaneously puts so much trust in the desire to know.  Trust, after all, can flourish only where there is something to value, and value has to be rooted in what is imperishable.  I can conceive of no fuller justification of the trust underlying cognitional performance than a theological vision of reality that attributes to truth, meaning, goodness (and beauty) something of the eternal. “It fortifies my soul to know, that though I perish, truth is so.”  (Arthur Hugh Clough)

Scientific naturalists will persist in claiming that they have already included human intelligence in their very nontheological picture of nature.  Darwin, they will contend, has done so in his sweeping vision of life, explaining intelligence as a product of natural selection.  But Darwin never claimed to have explained critical intelligence as such; and even in The Descent of Man he has to limit his study to external behavioral traits.  No objectifying science has ever yet penetrated the world of the subject, nor can it by definition.  Naturalists still pretend that the “insideness” of intelligence is irrelevant as far as enlightened thought is concerned, but in doing so they have exiled the most stunning of all emergent cosmic phenomena from the range of those data that are essential to a full understanding of nature.  There is nothing to complain about in such a procedure so long as one remains aware of how much it leaves out, and there need be no objection to the fact that science itself cannot talk about subjectivity.  It is only when scientific method, which justifiably abstracts from notions like subjectivity and intelligence, is taken as the sufficient foundation for an entire worldview that objections must be raised.

It is hard to understand how naturalists, whose vision of the cosmos intends to be comprehensive, can appropriately suppress attentiveness to anything so empirically accessible as the mind’s anticipation of truth.  And so it is all the more worthy of attention that recent developments in the fields of astrophysics, scientific cosmology and biochemistry now render such an exclusion much more dubious than it may have seemed only half a century ago.  Those naturalists who are aware of recent studies of the early universe can no longer sever critical intelligence from the cosmos as casually as they did earlier in the modern period.  It now turns out that the precise physical conditions that would allow intelligent, truth-seeking beings to emerge came into play at the first moment of the Big Bang universe itself.  The universe was never essentially mindless.

In an expectant way the cosmos, it now appears, was always enveloped by the potential to become subjective. Even at a time when there were no actual intelligent human subjects around to understand and know it, the universe was already infused with a mind-arousing intelligibility that would become the congenial evolutionary habitat for critical intelligence.   This pervasive cosmic intelligibility must have had something to do with the fact that critical intelligence eventually arose in cosmic history.  Just as the existence of photons had something to do with the evolutionary emergence of eyesight many times independently during terrestrial evolution, so also an environing cosmic intelligibility had to have been a causal factor in the emergence of intelligent subjects able to adapt to that environment.  Hence a full account of the emergence of critical intelligence has to look for an ultimate explanation of why the universe is intelligible at all.  A candid openness to that question cannot exclude theology as the source of a reasonable response.

The salient question is whether the improbable paving of the cosmic path toward the creation of minds could ever be explained adequately in a purely naturalistic way.  Naturalism’s answer, of course, is a clear affirmative.  “Nature is enough” will be the refrain here in cosmology as it has been in biology.  The mindless interplay of accident and impersonal physical necessity across immensities of time in a multiverse can allegedly account for the improbable set of cosmic conditions and constants that give the appearance of having been set up for mind. The Darwinian exposÈ of living design as only seemingly intelligent has now begun to shape even the naturalist’s cosmology.  These days Down House is casting its shadow over naturalists’ thoughts about the universe as well as life.15 

Yet if one takes critical intelligence as a fact of nature, the appeal to cosmic Darwinism as an ultimate explanation only drags the naturalist project down deeper into the alchemical vortex.  The upshot is that everything in nature still emerges out of an original, though now vaster, mindlessness.  Such a setting only exacerbates the incongruity between the ultimate unintelligibility of the enlarged cosmic kitchen and the emergent mind that is cooked up in it.   And wherever enormous explanatory gaps show up, the temptation to magic lags not far behind.  The naturalist hope is that by multiplying universes and extending the amount of time available for accidents to become adaptive, it is possible to build a universe whose environmental conditions are suitable for intelligent subjects.  Yet at bottom such a universe still remains ultimately unintelligible, and that means it can never be an adaptive habitat for an unrestricted desire to know.

What is needed is an understanding of the universe, or perhaps the multiverse, in which the desire to know can be taken as a smoothly natural extrusion of nature rather than the gnostic intrusion for which the naturalist’s austere picture of the cosmos inevitably prepares the way.  Falling back time and again only on the combined notions of chance, temporal amplitude and physical necessity, naturalism has not made the actual existence of mind any more intelligible—rather, much less so—than before.  For naturalism to succeed as ultimate explanation it must be able to link critical intelligence, with its anticipation of a fullness of truth and being, to the cosmic process in a way that is more credible, less loaded with leaps, and more intuitively rational than those of its theological adversaries.  So far it has not done so.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes: “Our world contains within itself a mysterious promise of the future, implicit in its natural evolution. . . . that is the final assertion of the scientist as he closes his eyes, heavy and weary from having seen so much that he could not express.”16  As I reflect on my own desire to know and try to follow its instinctive orientation toward a fullness of being, truth, goodness and beauty, I can expect to find a satisfactory setting for this desire only in some version of a theological—and specifically eschatological—understanding of reality.  Such a worldview could be declared illusory by definition only if it frustrated or failed to support the unfolding of my desire to know.  But religious hope, including belief that my critical intelligence is in some sense imperishable, can only serve to shore up my natural inclination to value the mind in such a way as to encourage me to surrender humbly to its imperatives.  Hope can serve the cause of truthfulness if it encourages me to remain faithful to my desire to know in the face of all apparent frustrations. 

 I conclude then that a sufficient ground for trusting my desire to know cannot be found exclusively by looking back to the causal past but only by taking into account the mind’s innate anticipation of a fullness of being, meaning, truth, goodness and beauty looming on the horizon up ahead.  Minds are naturally and irremediably anticipatory, oriented toward a fulfillment that only an endlessly open future can bring.  Moreover, critical intelligence is embedded in a long unfolding of life, emergence, evolution and cosmic becoming whose own orientation has always been deeply anticipatory.  The world, Teilhard writes, “rests on the future. . . as its sole support.”17  The forward thrust of nature as observed in its various phases of emergence is not a fiction that humans wishfully invent.  Rather, it is a general hallmark of cosmic process.  It comes to light most explicitly in the emergence of the desire to know, but a leaning toward the future is a fundamental feature of all of nature, one that finds a full flowering in religious hope for a final fulfillment of nature, persons and history. 

Natural occurrences, not to mention human creativity, become intelligible only if one does more than just take note of the causal history that leads up to them, or of the atomic constituents ingredient in them.  To appreciate the full reality of emergent phenomena it is necessary to attend also to their present openness to future transformation.  Everything in nature, as a recently chastened physics now has to admit, is open to future outcomes that defy scientific prediction on the basis of what has already occurred in the realm of the earlier-and-simpler.18  This freedom from absolute determination by the past is part of their identity just as it is part of our own.  Why, ultimately, nature has this general openness to possibility the natural sciences do not say.  Scientific method has characteristically understood things primarily in terms of what has led up to them or, reductively, in terms of the allegedly “fundamental” physical units that make them up.  It has been able to make only very general—though technologically useful—predictions based on the past habits of nature.  But it has not laid out in fine-grained specificity what actual future, and especially long-range, cosmic outcomes will be like. 

What science deliberately leaves out is the question of why the universe is open in the first place to the dawning of new possibilities.  This may not be a properly scientific question in any case, but theology at least has an appropriately explanatory role to play here, not only in accounting for why the universe exists at all, but also in speculating about why nature remains open to future transformation.  In saying this I am not making room for a god-of-the-gaps that would ever compete with scientific understanding.  My approach challenges naturalism, but in no sense does it compete with science.  The hard work of science still remains to be done, and theology can never be a substitute for this effort. 

My point is simply that the later-and-more of nature, as the above reflection on critical intelligence has shown, cannot be fully understood by telling the scientific story of how it arose out of the earlier-and-simpler.  Learning how mind appeared in the history of nature is fascinating in its narrative content.  But if nothing else were involved in explaining the reality and power of mind than conceptually and imaginatively cobbling together a series of mindless antecedents and components, then the essential feature of critical intelligence will still have been overlooked, namely, its present anticipatory openness to a fullness of being, meaning and truth up ahead. And by leaving this dimension of anticipation out of our understanding of mind we would also have diminished our understanding of the wider universe.

Of course, one can always deny verbally that there is anything “more” involved in critical intelligence than its material constituents.  Perhaps minds, like everything else in life, are really just simplicity masquerading in the guise of complexity, as Peter Atkins claims.19  However, this declaration is self-refuting since it implies logically that the complex mind that makes such a claim is itself really nothing more than the earlier-and-simpler mindless stuff from which it arose.  And if the roots of Atkins’s own mind have such a physically lowly status, where then did he acquire the colossal trust in his mental powers that allows him to assume now that we should listen to him?  Tracing the causes of present phenomena all the way back into the remotest past and all the way down to the elemental levels of cosmic stuff, leads the mind only toward the incoherence of sheer multiplicity.20  Only by looking toward future syntheses of the world’s elemental units does intelligibility start to show up.  For nothing in our evolving world can make complete sense until it has reached its terminus.21  Full intelligibility, therefore can only coincide with an Absoute Future, a goal that we can approach here and now by cultivating the virtue of hope.22

Temporal passage, physical determinism and Darwinian selection, though essential to the ongoing creation of life and mind, are not alone enough to account for the anticipatory bearing of critical intelligence, nor for that of the entire natural world in which our minds are embedded.  Each natural entity, in addition to comprising physically simpler and historically antecedent factors, is also open, though not without constraints, to being transformed bya realm of new possibilities looming on the horizon of the future.  I have called nature’s openness to possibility anticipation, a concept that each of us can understand immediately since it is the dynamic core of our own critical intelligence.  And although scientific discourse understandably shies away from such terminology, a stereoscopic empiricism is obliged to employ analogies like anticipation in order to arrive at a realistic and expansive understanding of nature.  Some degree of anticipation—that is, openness to possibility—is a fundamental feature of nature, and not something that drops in out of the void only after the emergence of the human mind.

Of course, the quality of anticipation in nature needs an explanation also, and it is here that I would locate the relevance of theology to my inquiry. Such an explanation would focus on the notion of possibility.  Possibility, in Latin, is potentia, a term that can be translated as potency or power.  Power, though, is not limited to efficient or mechanical causation.  There is also the power of the possible that allows room in nature for anticipation, cosmic emergence and eventually the desire to know.  Without an inherent openness to future possibility everything would be frozen in its present state and nothing new could ever happen.  Unlike scientific naturalism, which views the future as a void to be filled in by the forward rush of aimless events out of the past, a theology of nature features the openness of the world to surprising new modes of being.  The world’s openness to novelty is due not to an absolute emptiness stretching up ahead, but to an array of possibilities that come to greet the present, as it were, from out of the future, carrying it away from entrapment in what has been. There is a “power of the future” whose appropriate name is God, and whose central action is the “arrival of the future.”23 

Religious hope, I dare say, arises from the same anticipatory desire to know that underlies all conscious intentionality, including scientific inquiry.  Even in all its ambiguity, religious anticipation of a final end to all confusion can hardly be completely alien to a critical intelligence whose very definition is a search for ever deeper intelligibility and truth.  The widespread religious longing for ultimate fulfillment does not contradict, but arises simultaneously with, the unrestricted desire to know.  Indeed, the cognitional ancestry of our irrepressible trust in the desire to know is intertwined with the religious tendency to look for ultimate fulfillment.  To disentangle the two desires, I believe, runs the risk of killing them both.



1 Letter to W. Graham, July 3rd, 1881, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin edited by Francis Darwin (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 285.

2 Kenneth Boulding,  “Toward an Evolutionary Theology,” Jerome Perlinski, editor, The Spirit of the Earth: A Teilhard Centennial Celebration (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), pp. 112-13.

3 Ronald Numbers, “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Belief,” When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 266.

4 Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them (New York: Basic Books, 2002), pp. 167-68.

5 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

6 See Charley Hardwick, Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology  (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

7 See Bernard Lonergan, S. J., “Cognitional Structure,” Collection, edited by F. E. Crowe, S. J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), pp. 221-39.

8 See Is Nature Enough?, 141-66.

9 As I have mentioned already, my inquiry is guided by Bernard Lonergan’s ideas even though my terminology and applications of his theory of knowledge are not always his.

10 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated and edited by James Strachey (New York: Norton,1989); Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing (New York: Anchor Books, 1990); Karl Marx, Early Writings, translated and edited by T. B. Bottomore (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1964); Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books, 1959); Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1990); Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000).

11 S¯ren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, translated by Walter Lowrie (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954), pp. 154-55.

12 Daniel Dennett’s work is the most explicit example: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

13 Colin McGinn, a self-avowed naturalist, resignedly admits as much in The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

14 John R. Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 135-36.

15 Lee Smolin,  The Life of the Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Martin Rees, Our Cosmic Habitat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

16 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War, Translated by RenÈ Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 55-56.

17 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, translated by RenÈ Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), p. 239.

18 Robert B. Laughlin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (New York: Perseus Books, 2005).

19 P. W. Atkins, The 2nd Law: Energy, Chaos, and Form (New York: Scientific American Books, 1994), p. 200.

20 A point that Teilhard de Chardin makes throughout his works.

21 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, trans. RenÈ Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1969), 66.

22 Karl Rahner, S, J.  Theological Investigation, Vol. VI, translated by Karl and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 59-68.

23 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Faith and Reality, translated by John Maxwell (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 58-59;  Ted Peters, God—The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd Edition(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).