Science in Christian Perspective
The Great Experimenter?
James O. Morse*
925 Church Road
McGregor, TX 76657
From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (June 1997): 108-110.
Those of us who occupy a middle position in the creation-evolution debate are still searching for a satisfactory answer to one question that those at the extremes of the debate do not have to worry with. That is, why would an all-powerful Creator go about populating the Earth in the halting, roundabout ways of theistic evolution or progressive creation, if he knew from the beginning what he wanted and how to get there?
Of course, the fiat creationists have no such problem since for them creation definitely was carried out quickly and deliberately. Their main problem lies in explaining away the fossil evidence for a large variety of creatures that came and went long before humankind ever appeared. The Gap Theory probably provides as good an alternative explanation as any for this purpose.
Secular evolutionists from Darwin to Stephen Jay Gould have argued that imperfections in nature are clear evidence that no superior intelligence could have been involved in their creation. At least no intelligent Creator would have designed so many body parts less well than a present-day engineer could.1 Why does the human body, for example, have a vertebral column that seems better suited for our walking on all fours than for standing all day, an appendix that seems designed for no useful purpose other than the enrichment of surgeons, gills on embryos which will never swim in an ocean, and a reproductive system that is so inefficient that half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage? If there were an all-knowing, all-powerful Creator, would he not have done a better job of designing for safety and efficiency than what we see in nature? Why would a supernatural Creator have littered the landscape with the remnants of millions of kinds of creatures that long ago became extinct and why would he have left several unusable oddities in the bodies of both embryos and adult living creatures? To secular evolutionists this seems to indicate a ridiculous streak of whimsy in the character of the Creator.
A typical conclusion from the secular evolutionist viewpoint is that of Beverly Halstead, a British scientist: "I personally do not see how the concept of evolution can be made consistent with that of creation by a personal god, or indeed any sort of God."2 At least, it's puzzling to many why an all-powerful God, who already knew everything, would choose such a haphazard way to design humankind. Also, the picture of a Creator, who could have done better but didn't care to do so, does not appeal to most people.
Of course, a believer can always say that God must have had his own reasons, that that's just the way he did it, or that it's not our job to question his workings. But can we really expect to get even a borderline agnostic to consider the possibility of intelligent design, if we are unable to explain the intelligence behind the design?
Theists could argue that maybe God chose to create living things in the rather halting ways of gradual evolution or progressive creation just to make his involvement in creation less obvious and avoid forcing anyone to believe in his existence against their will. This could be seen as the flip side of the argument from design. The fact that this freedom to disbelieve did not really become widely operative until Darwin came along is against this being an important reason.
It might be helpful if we were to take seriously the advice of the Apostle Paul and look at the details of nature to help us gain a better understanding of the workings of the Creator. "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made" (Rom. 1:20, NRSV). While we don't seem to have much difficulty in seeing the evidences of God's power in the mountains, the seas, and the heavenly bodies that he has created, we may be overlooking what the living creatures he has made can tell us about the limitations imposed on the creative process by his divine nature.
Edward Fredkin, one of those largely self-taught pioneers in computer science, has compared the task of creating and operating the universe to that of running a computer program. From such a comparison, he has drawn a rather unconventional theological conclusion:
There is no way to know the answer to some question any faster than what's going on...Suppose that there is an all-powerful God. And he's thinking of creating this universe...Okay, now, if he's as all-powerful as you might imagine, he can say to himself, "Wait a minute, why waste the time? I can create the whole thing, or I can just think about it for a minute and just realize what's going to happen so that I don't have to bother."...I can say I don't care how powerful God is; he cannot know the answer any faster than doing it. Now, he can have various ways of doing it, but he has to do every...single step with every bit or he won't get the right answer. There's no shortcut.3
Could God's knowledge of the future actually have been that limited when he set out to create the universe? It is no longer unusual to question whether God could actually have foreknowledge of the decisions that human beings may make in the future without destroying their free will. (For example, see Richard Rice's God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will.4) Fredkin gets into a related area when he denies his hypothetical Creator foreknowledge in the process of creation.
Is there any evidence to back up Fredkin's claim other than making analogies with the functioning of computers? Does the universe itself suggest that he is right? If a supernatural Creator were subject to the limitations regarding knowledge of the future that Fredkin believes that he would have to have been, could he have predicted exactly what would happen in response to each of his creative acts? Might we find a clue if we consider how such a Creator might have gone about creating the universe and filling the earth with living things, if his foreknowledge of the results were actually as limited as Fredkin believes?
The usual fiat creationist pictures God as architect and engineering designer. First he planned exactly how all thingsófrom the smallest nuclear particles up to the largest starówere going to be constructed and how they were to function in his new universe. Then he created it all from nothing and set it in motion. Unfortunately for the creationist case, such a Creator may not have been in the same situation as human planners are when they set out to design a building or a machine and then build it. They, at least, have had some experience in similar designs or have books by other, more experienced designers to fall back on. They also know something about the materials they will use.
On the other hand, the creation of the universe could have been a new experience for even an eternal God unless, of course, he had experimented earlier (as the Gap Theory implies). The results, however, favor this universe's being the original experiment. In Fredkin's terms, God is still waiting for this "computer" to grind out the final answer.
Since even God may not have been able to predict exactly the behavior of particles that had never yet existed, much less what would result when they were placed together, a logical place to start might have been to create some undifferentiated matter and see what could be done with it. Maybe just take a lump of nothingness and split it into matter and anti-matter. Then wait until the dust had settled from the resultant explosion before proceeding to shape it into the universe we know.
When it finally came to making living creatures, a Creator with limited experience likely would have begun with simple organisms and gradually added more complicated features. To save time he may have tried a variety of approaches almost simultaneously (as in the Cambrian Explosion). He may even have used natural selection to make improvements in some and to discard what was unpromising in others. Some creatures would be allowed to become extinct, while others would be left to just occupy a niche that suited them and change very little over the years.
FranÁois Jacob, a French geneticist, has concluded that the designer of the creative process did not work as an engineer might but rather as a tinkerer would. He used parts available from earlier model machines to produce an improved, but still workable object. "Evolution does not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one."5 Isn't it likely that a Creator without previous creative experience in the area would do the same?
Professor Halstead partly agrees: "If the process were directed it suggests that God was continually learning from his mistakes."6 Perhaps, except that "mistakes" or "errors" are not the usual terms we use when an inventor (or a cook) tries something that has never been tried before and does not initially get the results that he or she had hoped for. "Experimentation" better describes the process.
Actually human engineers are not always as successful in designing new pieces of equipment as we would like to think. This is particularly true if the new structures bear little resemblance to anything already in existence. Some of the most notable recent flops have been in military hardware. The results have generally been more satisfactory (and with fewer cost overruns) whenever engineers have been allowed to gradually improve the design of equipment that was already in use. Similarly an intelligent Creator might have worked just as the tinkerer that Jacob describes, if that were the most reliable way to arrive at workable structures given the paucity of prior experience with anything similar.
If scientists such as Fredkin and Jacob are reading the record correctly, it may be more accurate to think of the Creator, not as the Great Designer, but as the Great Experimenter. It may well be that God utilized the gradual development of organisms by mechanisms of both natural and guided selection or that he actually created a series of progressively more complex organisms because that was the best way to get the desired results.
Fortunately God did not wipe the slate clean after each stage and leave us in the dark about our origins. He has left the remnants for us to discover and interpret. God as experimenter rather than God as designer might be a more useful paradigm for understanding his workings.
To some it may seem heretical to suggest any limits on the foreknowledge of God, but actually Judaism and Christianity have always claimed that God is all-knowing only of things that are knowable. He is all-powerful only to do things that are doable. We hardly honor him to claim things about him that could not be so. We need to take into account the actual Universe that we have as we try to understand better the Creator who made it. This is not to build a natural theology from scratch as much as it is to use the facts found in nature to clarify the revealed theology we already have. The result should be more scientifically defensible and might even remove a few of the stumbling blocks that keep some scientists from considering religious faith as a personal option.
1Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1980), 26.
2L. Beverly Halstead, "EvolutionóThe Fossils Say Yes!," Science and Creationism, ed. Ashley Montagu (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 240.
3Robert Wright, "Did the Universe Just Happen?" Atlantic Monthly (April 1988): 43.
4Richard Rice, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985).
5FranÁois Jacob, "Evolution and Tinkering," Science 196 (June 10, 1977): 1161-1166.
6L. Beverly Halstead, "EvolutionóThe Fossils Say Yes!" 240.