Sunday, August 10, 2008

Continuo Creatio

I finished Chance or Purpose by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn and wanted to type out some bits before I have to return it to the library. I liked the whole book, which approached the science/religion question from a religious, philosophical perspective.

The section on continuing creation was particularly useful to me, because it dealt with something that does come up often.

First, he discusses the "God of the gaps" which some Christians as well as non-Christian people use as an argument for Design (or in critique of the Design argument, in the case of the non-Christians -- I can't believe I proofread that twice and didn't catch it). The argument that some natural things are mysterious in naturalistic terms and therefore can only be explained by a Creator is easily grabbed on to by Christians, and easily critiqued by those who are critiquing the notion of a Creator. I do not like the "God of the gaps" argument, and I think it is related to what my daughter calls the "author peeking from behind the tree" problem with some literature. A skilled author shows himself only intentionally; he does not have to quickly back away out of sight again when he realizes that the audience's eyes have become focused on him instead of on the players in the scene. "Dear Reader" may be fine, but you see this occasional inadvertent revelation of puppet-wires in some fiction (even very good fiction, sometimes) -- and you don't imagine that this is a perfection of the work. God is too skilled a craftsman to reveal himself by his "gaps", it would seem to me, as if he was constantly stitching up things that had been improperly joined in this first place. I suppose He could do it that way but there is no necessity for Him to have operated that way, and it would not be of much help in the ultimate question of whence and whereforth this all comes from to begin with. Here is what Schonborn says:

"The notion that "current creation" (or continua creatio) means that God has to "re-adjust" and repair his creation, is common. If the present activity of the Creator is understood as a kind of "process of improvement," then it is understandable that people only want to have it involved in places where there are gaps in our knowledge, as a kind of "stopgap" for areas scientific knowledge has not yet reached. ...

A great deal that was previously incomprehensible in natural processes, because we did not know how to explain it, can be explained today through scientific research and has thereby become incomprehensible. God the Creator does not appear in these explanations, however, but "merely" matrices of material causation. The more that is explained, the less there remains that is inexplicable..... It is no wonder that Der Spiegel closes the article we just cited with the words, "It's becoming cramped for the creator."

He goes on:

"Yet belief in the Creator does not begin at the point where we do not yet know something, but precisely where we do know very well. ....

One thing is certain: every observable being at one time did not exist. The sun came into existence, as did the moon, the earth, life in all its forms, right up to man, and myself as well. What once did not exist will also decay and disappear again...... It is then meaningful and necessary to ask, "What keeps everything in being?"

He refers to the philosophical concept of "contingency".... "the absence of necessity in our existence". Everything that exists on the material plane might as well not have existed; it could easily cease to exist. He goes on to explain the philosophical concept of first causes.

The power that maintains everything in being cannot be yet another material force. Such a force would have to be supported by something in turn, and that again by something else, and so on to infinity. ... It can be no force that has come into being and is ultimately finite; no energy that we can measure. It must be an abolute power, beyond time, infinite.

The way it works out, if one disallows the possibility of a God and yet thinks all the way back, one will end up granting the universe a status of "non-contingency" -- that is, something that was necessary and not caused by something else. That is an interesting kind of faith, but it is not exactly what most people mean when they say they are "rationalists". I read an argument by a "secular" scientist who proposed that our solar system could easily have been formed by an Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence -- an alien from another galaxy or universe. Charming as the idea is, it begs the question philosophically. What caused the alien? You go back another step into finitude and that's meaningless in itself -- it's like the French lesson "the portmanteau of the son of my neighbor's aunt's cousin".

Schonborn makes an interesting point about God's continuing creative activity, which doesn't have to be confined or utilized, like the "deus ex machina", to explain what we have no other explanation for:

There is no doubt that our world is a world of becoming, in which the unfolding of the cosmos, and evolution, have made human life possible on our planet. Along this path of becoming, however, we find the "appearance" of genuinely new things. Can this "greater thing" have arisen from the "less"? Can lower things bring forth, of their own power, higher and more complex things? Nothing in our experience suggest that something lower can give rise to something higher, simply of itself, without some directive and organizing activity and still less, do so quite by chance.
Then - -this is the part I like, because it presents a distinction that seems valuable to me:

"are there, then, "individual acts of creation" after all? Yet how could we establish their existence? Here we need to refer to a perfectly simply distinction between a precondition and a cause. In order for life to come into being on our planet a whole series of preconditions were needed, without which there would be no life. Yet these preconditions were -- and are-- only the framework of conditions for life to come into being. They do not constitute the creative cause of life. They all play a part in life's coming to be, yet the new element in the development of the world, which we call life, cannot be derived from them....

The "divine spark", this "let there be... and there was", natural science will never encounter on its own plane of operation. It is trying to apprehend ever more precisely, in ever more complex ways, the conditions necessary for new life to be kindled in the process of development. Because research into the conditions prerequisite to life is making such enormous progress, many people believe they have unlocked the secret of life itself. As elements that genuinely make this possible, these requisite conditions are in that sense contributory causes, but they do not create life.
I like that distinction between a precondition and a cause. I can see how the two can be confused easily, because we tend to do it all the time. The point is as Cardinal Schonborn said, that this is not rational -- it is a bit animistic, in fact, because it invests secondary things with primary motives and power....somewhat like praying to the wind and the stars, but in scientific terms, attributing power to things that can easily cease to be or that might never have existed.

Please note that I am not even talking about miracles, which have a different purpose altogether and don't really come into this -- we are not talking about repair work or inadvertent authorial revelation then, but something conscious and purposeful. Even a sparrow's fall is noted by God, it is said, but this is not the author's fallacy I mentioned above. It is rather the loving crafting and continuing attention that every author brings to every detail of his work.(the etymology of author is "founder", even father, and evokes the genitive line of succession I mentioned earlier).

Here's a blog about the book.
Here's an article from Ignatius Insight.


Marie said...

Thanks for sharing this, Willa. I'll need to put this book in line to be read soon.

Steph said...

I definitely want to read this book. Thank you!

Laura A said...

I'm just catching up here after vacation, reading while ironing! I really liked your point about the "God in the Gaps" argument. I may pass this on to a friend who sometimes asks questions about theistic evolution and ID.