abiogenesis evolution religion theology

Mind Before Matter


There are only two possibilities. Either mind arose from matter, or matter arose from mind. Either we, with our minds having such apparently limitless potential, arose from billions of years of chance meetings between various bits of matter, or everything that is was purposely created by a mind vaster than we can imagine. Which is it?

Even granting all that evolution claims: that life becomes increasingly complex, that we share common ancestry with every other living thing on the planet, that our intelligence—our mind—evolved from living things with no mind at all and no mechanism but a mindless need to replicate—even granting all that, the question remains: where did life come from? For if no mind created it, then it must have simply happened somehow on earth or been carried here by some means in the distant past. It turns out that even the simplest living things are extraordinarily complex and fragile. In order for life to succeed, it must have happened not once but many times over the eons. Yet our best efforts at reproducing conditions under which life could just happen have failed to produce a single living thing from non-living matter. Despite recent findings that suggest the primordial earth may have been more hospitable to life than was hitherto believed, no one has been able to suggest a means by which life could have simply appeared in order to take advantage of that more hospitable environment.

Perhaps life came from elsewhere, from some place where conditions we cannot imagine were more favorable to its appearance. Perhaps it was transported here by some meteor that struck the earth at just the right time for the life it carried to thrive in the optimal conditions it encountered. But moving the appearance of life off planet solves nothing. In fact, it raises further difficulties.

If life came from off planet, how did it survive in interstellar space, known to be most inhospitable to life? For everything out there is too hot or too cold, too dry, too exposed to deadly radiation or violence. And having survived the rigors of interstellar space, how did it survive impact with the earth? Just look at Meteor Crater in Arizona. It is a mile wide and was formed by a chunk of rock the size of a refrigerator. The meteor itself vaporized on impact. The idea that life somehow landed on the earth is even less likely than that it simply appeared here by chance.

So are we left with? Either mind after matter with a major conundrum about the origin of life, or mind before matter and the possibility of a purpose beyond ourselves.

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What if Evolution is True?

Nothing in science provokes controversy like evolution, especially in America. Despite more than 80 years of evolution teaching in America’s schools, Americans remain doubtful that all life now on earth developed from less advanced forms of life. Among scientists, however, and especially among biologists, the verdict is nearly unanimous: evolution occurs. Why such a serious disconnect? Is the evidence for evolution not compelling? Is it too abstruse for non-specialists to understand?

Opposition to evolution from evangelical Christians has been particularly strong. Some, such as popular speaker Ron Carlson, still cling to the notion that the world (and presumably the entire universe as well) is less than 10,000 years old. Such people remain untroubled by evidence because they start with accepting the literal truth of the bible. Evidence contrary to the bible is dismissed as unconvincing or dishonest. The whole scientific enterprise is seen as a means for eliminating God from public discourse rather than a means for discovering the truth about the universe we live in.

There can be no doubt that science attracts atheists or encourages atheism. Belief in a personal god is rare among scientists. But I think it is disingenuous to claim that scientists do not care about truth. Many early scientists were men and women of faith. They expected that their investigations would confirm the truth of scripture. Early geologists, for example, sought everywhere for evidence of a massive worldwide flood, and it seemed at first that fossils of sea creatures on mountain tops might bear out the biblical account. But as they examined the evidence, they became more an more convinced that the layers of fossils they were seeing were millions of years old, laid down when the mountain tops were sea beds and then thrust up by the slow motions of the earth’s crust. This process of being convinced by evidence was not driven by the desire to get rid of God. It was driven by the universal human desire to understand.

Many evangelicals have concluded that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of scripture. If evolution is true, they claim, then the bible is not true. I think this is a very dangerous position because it gives excellent grounds to the enemies of Christ for rejecting the gospel. The bible has never been nor was ever intended to be a book of scientific claims. When the psalmist says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13), he is not making a factual statement about the process by which human beings are formed. He is claiming that human beings are specially created by God no matter what processes are involved in their making. This is a claim that science cannot verify. It is a claim made by faith. Most of the claims made in scripture—and surely all the most important ones—are similarly claims of faith.

If evolution is true, it has consequences for faith. But the consequences need not be catastrophic. Throughout history Christians have adapted to the intellectual climate of the times. During the middle ages, for example, the orthodox view of sex was that it was solely for procreation. Enjoyment of sex even by people married to each other was considered evil because it encouraged the desires of the flesh. Similarly, food was meant to be eaten for sustenance and not for enjoyment. (We could probably do with more restraint in both areas nowadays, but I digress). Evolution poses difficult problems for understanding ourselves in relation to God. At what point did human beings become spiritual beings? What are we to make of the creation stories in the bible? How are we made in the image of God if we share common ancestry with other creatures? In fact, what does “made in the image of God” mean?

I don’t know whether evolution is true. I do know that I do not want to tie my faith in a changeless God to scientific explanations, which have changed time and again.

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Presumed Intelligence


Suppose you are walking along a beach and you come across these lines scrawled in the sand:

Our vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires and more slow

What would you think?

  1. That you had received a message from God
  2. That some human had been musing on Andrew Marvell’s poetry
  3. That some random process of wind and sea and sand crabs had accidentally produced marks resembling words

Certainly, it is possible to believe any of these. Yet I think most people would assume that the lines had been written by some human agent.

Now suppose you investigated and found that no one had visited that stretch of beach for days. Suppose you were able to show beyond doubt that the lines could not have been written by a human being. Then what would you believe? If the lines had to have been written by a non-human agent, which is more likely: God or nature?

I confess I don’t know. As a theist, I’m not even sure that a distinction between the two is significant. (In other words, if I were able to witness the words being formed by wind and sea and sand crabs, I don’t think I would find it any less supernatural.) I think I would cling to the notion that a human agent must be involved. After all, why would God quote Marvell?