6/07/2005

Quantum Mechanics and Evolution

Last time I mentioned that Miller, for all his intense and persuasive arguments against creationism, did not find materialism in evolution to be a forced move. He presented two principles which allow God room to intervene and thereby participate in the creation of the world as we now know it. The first window was in the creation of the universe itself according to what is now called the strong anthropic principle. I found his use of this principle to be unpersuasive it that while it seems that Miller strongly discourages biological creationism, he here seems to be endorsing astronomical creationism, an argument based too heavily on our current ignorance of the universes beginnings. Additionally, it is very unclear how the anthropic prinicple, in it's strong form, works when combined with the Mormon doctrine of the eternal nature of physical law and elements. I think it best that we, as Mormons, search elsewhere for a creative window of opportunity.

Miller's second options which he considers is based on quantum mechanics. This may seem like another appeal to ignorance, but there is a slight variation. This ignorance does not derive from our lack of understanding in this particular field, but rather is an inherent quality in this field. It's not that we don't now know or aren't able to make accurate predictions about what happens at the quantum level based on our current understanding of the matter. Instead, quantum mechanism has an 'uncertainty principle' built into it which ensures that we never will be able to predict what happens at that level.

Some think that difference between the two is negligible and that Miller really is falling back on the very arguments he criticized so heavily in his chapters on creationism. Miller does not, nor do I when considering things from his view. But there is the the rub. His view of God is not our view at all. I will explain why after a brief review of what, exactly, it is that Miller has in mind.

Miller draws heavily on Schrodinger's classic work "What is life?" Miller summarizes as follows:
Life is built around a chemistry that provides an amplifying mechanism for quantum events... Mutations, which provide the raw material of genetic variation, are just as unpredictable as a single photon passing through a diffraction slit... The fact that mutation and variation are inherently unpredictable means that the course of evolution is, too. In other words, evolutionary history can turn on a very, very small dime - the quantum state of a single subatomic particle... Quantum physics tells us that absolute knowledge, complete understanding, a total grasp of universal reality, will never be ours. (207-8)

He goes on to mention that the main thing that gets the opponents of evolution so riled up about the subject is the idea of its being totally random. "The only alternative to what they describe as randomness would be a nonrandom universe or clockwork mechanisms that would also rule out active intervention by any supreme Deity." (213) In this they are wrong, Miller maintains, for the position which more clearly fits their theology is the indeterminacy of quantum physics. In other words, God can act at the quantum level without science ever (in principle) coming to know the difference.

Before we go on to Miller more exciting applications of his reasoning, let's first view what we have here with a critical eye, if not a Mormon eye. First of all, let's discuss God's apparent ability to use quantum physics to His advantage. Let's assume that He does have this ability (if He didn't then the argument is over before it even starts). In order to be able to use this inherently unpredictable mechanism to His advantage He must of had to learn about it. Remember, God was once an ignorant man, just like us. But if He could learn about it to such a degree as to be able to use it to His advantage, which entails predictability, then Miller's argument of inherent unpredictability doesn't work in the Mormon context. Either it's inherently unpredictable or it's not, we can't have our cake and eat it too. This is one problem.

Another problem arises in his (over)emphasis of the randomnes in quantum physics and its relationship to mutation. The randomness of evolution which the materialists emphasize so much does not come from quantum physics, but from the utter contingency involved in the evolutionary process. Evolution works with whatever mutations are already in the population, thus the mutations are random in the sense that they are not 'intended' for anything. They are simply there through nobody's fault and nature selects whatever mutation happen to give organisms an advantage over those around them. If a particulat mutation helps, chances are (here is more change based on contingency) that it will eventually tend to spread through the popluation. If it doesn't help, chances are it won't. Either way, since all mutations are not equally fortuitous, SOME mutations will be selected, and all of this unguided randomness without quantum physics. Some, Dennett for instance, even maintain that evolution does not depend on indeterminacy at all.

Miller, it seems, could have equally said that since mankind will never be able to perfectly predict whether patterns, earthquakes, migrations and all the other extraordinarily complex factors which play a part in the survival of a particular species in any given ecosystem, we can never be sure that God isn't guiding things so let's keep faith. Basically, what Miller is holding out for is a Laplacian Demon, a demon which we do not believe exists.

That said, I must confess that the nature of quantum physics does suggest that if God is going to direct mutations, there is much that could be influenced on the macroscopic scale, by such infinitesimal and directed 'fluctuations.' If this is how God does it, however, then the inherent ignorance of such processes are only illusional.

I did say, though, that Miller's applications of his proposal are more exciting than the proposal itself. His accusation that Christians are playing into a form of Deism is particularly interesting from a Mormon perspective for reasons we shall soon see.
The opponents of evolution... see each new materialist, scientific explanation for a natural phenomenon as a retreat for the primacy of God. They are willing to fix on anything that seems unlikely to have a material explanation as proof of the divine agency they seek. And given biology's remarkable success in accounting for life's workings today, they are obliged to find those miracles in the past... Such reasoning shows a curious lack of faith in the creative power of God. Creationists act as though compelled to go into the past for evidence of God's work, yet ridicule the deistic notion of a designer-God who's been snoozing ever since His great work was finished... If they believe in an active and present God, a God who can work His will in the present in ways consistent with scientific materialism, then why couldn't that same God have worked His will in exactly the same ways in the past? What this means, in plain and simple terms, is that ordinary processes, rooted in the geniune materialism of science, ought to be sufficient to allow for God's work - yesterday, today and tomorrow. (215,217,218)

I'm sure most Mormons will recognize that last phrase since they are fond of quoting it to support their ideas concerning revelation, and miracles in general, in the current church. Do we really believe that God is the same or don't we? Why aren't new species popping up out of nowhere anymore like creationists seem to imagine? Why is His work finished?

Perhaps the least engaging (though far from being the least accurate) book which I have ever read on relgion and evolution would be "God After Darwin". The one thing which I did get out of the book, however, was the uplifting idea that the creation is not yet finished. God, with our co-creative help, is still creating a better world through the same laws which have always existed in this world. I like that, for it suggests that the methods that God used to perform His miracles in the creation of the world as we know it, are the same methods which He is still using today. We have already proposed two forms in which God could have directed evolution: 1) through inspiration and 2) through quantum fluctations. It sits well with me that we allow for these two methods to still be in use in the world today.

Summary: Miller's use of quantum physics an a impenetrable safe-haven for God's acts doesn't work too well in the Mormon context. Nevertheless, this not to say that God couldn't have, or didn't use it. Clearly God's creative acts lies in our ignorance somewhere, the problems only arise (as they do in creation science) when we resist penetrating this ignorance out of fear that God will be left without another job.

13 Comments:

"............the Mormon doctrine of the eternal nature of physical law and elements. I think it best that we, as Mormons, search elsewhere for a creative window of opportunity."

Jeffrey, since when did you become so married to a certain interpretation of Mormon doctrine? How can the physical laws and elements be eternal if G-d is independent of his creation(s)? Isn't current understanding of our universe that there wasn’t any space-time, physical laws or elements before the big bang? Related to this, so many religions, including Mormonism, restrict G-d to linear time, which he is obviously independent of as the creator of time. 

Posted by Steve (FSF)

6/07/2005 02:36:00 PM  

My main point is that we don't know nearly enough about the beginning of the universe or the creation to really speak meaningfully about either one. It's not at all clear that God created the universe as we use the word today. His mortality might have actually been in this universe for all we know.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that God did create this universe. We can't just say that He got to pick and choose what kind of universe it would be. There are two theological reasons for this: 1) the elements and laws are eternal, as I said. 2) God had to fix it so that we would have bodies just like He did, which means having the universal constants being almost exactly the same. We can say that God still made the constants that way, but such a statement relies heavily on our ignorance of the beginning of the universe, again.

Of one thing we can definitely be sure. God did not create time. He is not outside of time. If He has a body, He is in time. He can't go back in time. He can't really stop time. He can only go forward in it with us. Now whether there are other time dimension which could be used to His advantage is pure speculation which seems to contradict some other Mormon doctrines. The entry  in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is very good on this subject. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/07/2005 03:06:00 PM  

Jeffrey,

You're pulling my leg, right? I don't want to worship the man behind the curtain. I want to worship the Almighty, the creator of space-time and everything else. It's obvious that whoever drafted that section of Encyclopedia of Mormonism is a theological moron. There are no limits to the Almighty, space-time or otherwise. 

Posted by Steve (FSF)

6/07/2005 03:57:00 PM  

Jeff,

I think we have to allow God access to at least the same technology we have, which can accomplish alot without going to the quantum level. We make transgenic animals, genetically modified crops, and so forth. I see no reason why God could not have done some engineering at certain points.

Now I know I sound like an IDer here. The difference is that I don't claim that we can know exactly where God intervened, or if he did at all, because it cannot be distinguished from natural causes. I admit I am making a theological argument and not a scientific one.

My overall point is that I'm not sure I see why God has to be limited to the quantum level. He could do things on many levels that would blend into the natural background.

If you want to respond now, fine. But I think I'm going to do a post on this topic, so maybe you'll want to wait and see what I have in mind. 

Posted by Jared

6/07/2005 08:33:00 PM  

Jared,
I'm not saying that He has to be limited to the quantum level. I'm saying that Miller, or Schrodinger I should say, has a point, in that life as we know it seems "designed" to amplify quantum fluctuations that might be controlled by God. But as I also pointed out in a number of posts, simply controlling the mutations isn't enough at all. I think this is where your comments fit in quite nicely.

Steve,
It seems that you are maintaining that God didn't organize eternally existing matter as most Mormons believe, but that He created it out of nothing. How else could He have created space-time? 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/08/2005 08:48:00 AM  

Jeffery,
Yes, I'm not Nibleyite in that regard, probably in every regard (Talk about a naked emperor). You already know I read the scriptures in a very loosey-goosey way and rarely take anything in them literally.

How could G-d create anything and from what was it created? Hell if I know, that's why He's G-d. All I do know is every earthly description of Him I've ever heard puts some silly limitation on Him. I've come to the conclusion that descriptions of G-d can only grasp an aspect of Deity and He cannot be described in earthly space-time terms. Sort of like the wave-particle duality enigma in Physics. Hence my objection to basing so much LDS doctrine on the official account of the first vision. Did Moses teach the Almighty is a burning bush? 

Posted by Steve (FSF)

6/08/2005 10:42:00 AM  

Fair enough, as long as we both recognize that your version of God is very different from the God that Joseph and Brigham had in mind and seems to border, if not fully embrace, the ethical monotheistic God of traditional Christianity. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/08/2005 11:04:00 AM  

Is there a single version of God generated by JS and BY? I am uncomfortable with the concept expressed by Jeffrey thus:

Remember, God was once an ignorant man, just like us. But if He could learn about it to such a degree as to be able to use it to His advantage, which entails predictability, then Miller's argument of inherent unpredictability doesn't work in the Mormon context. 

In response to Christian's post here  I suggested that God was His world's Savior and therefore (like our Christ) eternally perfect and sinless. This gives Him a much different standing than an "ignorant man," puts Him on a much different plane than me, and may even provide for the "Almighty"-ness that Steve is looking for. Just because He was eternally sinless doesn't mean God didn't have to learn things at certain points (as we know Christ grew "from grace to grace" to become the Father). However, this inherent difference between Christ and the rest of God's children may allow for a His greater understanding that gives Steve the grandeur he needs.

Now, this in now way implies that God created the natural laws (He didn't). Nor does it mean that evolutionary laws aren't the way God created the universe, the earth, and us (they likely are). However, I think that before making God completely equal to us (in a previous earth generation) we must face these other possibilities. He must work within the framework of eternal natural laws but His eternal perfection and sinlessness may allow His understanding to be greater than is available to us even in exaltation. 

Posted by Mike Wilson

6/08/2005 10:00:00 PM  

This doesn't change much, for if we believe that we will become like God in any meaningful way then we will have to eventually learn about how to use QM in a way similar to how I said God had to learn it. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/09/2005 09:51:00 AM  

I’ve been stewing on the problem of why evolution is so vexing to religion. I’m starting to agree with Miller that one critical reason is this very notion of chaos you’ve eluded to above. Just like the scientific discovery of a vacuum was very troublesome in its day, I think chaos is equaling disturbing to religion today. The discovery of a vacuum created a real problem for the belief in an omnipresent god. If there is a space with nothing in it, then God can’t be in it either. Chaos should similarly shake our faith in omnipotence and omniscience. If a system is truly chaotic, it cannot be controlled and cannot be predicted. This becomes a space where God’s knowledge is limited and his ability to intervene annulled.

Popular LDS thought (now affirmed in last conference by our newest apostle) has misguidedly embraced chaos, but I think the terror of its true implications remain tied to a distain for evolution. Chaos seems to have become the new sphere of miracles. It is a space of randomness, where the outcome doesn’t matter. If the outcome doesn’t matter, popular belief suggests that God can manipulate the randomness to our benefit without violating physical laws or agency. But this is suggesting both that chaos exists and that it doesn’t exist. That it is random, yet purposeful. It makes no sense. If God purposefully manipulates chaos, it is no longer chaos. Granting God a space to act without violating physical laws only solves one problem. But the obvious question remains: if God is able to manipulate elements within an apparently chaotic sphere for his own purposes, then why doesn’t he do a better job when it counts? Why does he overlook the horrible apparently random genetic defects that occur? But this brings us away down a path of the larger problem of theodicy and chaos.

In contrast, the principles of chaos incorporated into evolution more strikingly remove the divine hand and replace it with “natural selection” guided by meiotic cross-over events and viral DNA insertions. This suggests, as you correctly note, that the process is truly random and that God isn’t at the helm and this IS very vexing.

Evolution as divine creation is appealing because it allows us a comprehensible glimpse into the mechanistic process of our creation, which is otherwise impenetrable. But it is hard to have it both ways. To have a system with inherent chaos that is nevertheless manipulated by divine purpose makes little logical sense despite the existential comfort it may provide.
 

Posted by John Welch

6/26/2005 07:30:00 PM  

Interesting comments. One wonders if those who complain about the apparent incompatibility of evolution and the fall are really most upset about this like they say, or if they are using it as a weapon to fight a battle against evolution motivated by this fear of chaos you mention. My experience with Mormons would suggest that, based on McConkie's and Smith's harsh attacks, that people fear the implications of a fall-less earth more than the "chaos-factor", a problem which people tend to simple say "God's in control and that's that."

My issues with QM in evolution are some what related to my issues of QM with Free Will. Is it random or not? People want to say that "there is where the indeterminacy lies where we can hold out for free will." But there is a problem, if its really indeterminate, then this has nothing to do with anybodies will. If its really random, then how can we say that God caused it? or that He caused it for a certain time? The point of the randomness is that there is no cause, be it inside or outside us. The same thing can be said about evolution, as you noted. Is it random or not, we can't have it both ways. If it is random, then it is no help. If it is not random, then we are back in with the creationists in a way, leaving ourselves open for testing and falsification. Clearly if God did guide evolution, however, then it must lie somewhere in our ignorance so we can't apply the same fear of commiting to a testable position forever.

Nevertheless, I do think that Miller's use of Schroedinger is a positive move for theists in general. The making of our bodies does seem to amplifiy very small changes which could, I repeat, could be useful for a God trying to direct evolution by guiding mutation. Of course guiding mutation is only half the job, for the "selection" must also be guided, otherwise the guided mutations will simply be washed away over time. I'm not sure how successful QM would be for guiding the environment to select certain features. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/27/2005 03:16:00 PM  

Yes, I agree that Mormon culture often dismisses the logical implications of chaos by saying, “God is in control.” We’ve lulled ourselves into very comfortable culture of safety believing God will not allow anything bad to happen that we can’t endure. I have trouble with this theology. It is a fine enough belief for those who live a life of luxury as many of us do. When pushed to the logical extreme, however, this belief has distinct limitations. As Rabbi Harold Kushner rhetorically asks, “Does God temper the wind to the shorn lamb?” But this line of critique belongs more on a thread about theodicy than one concerning chaos.

What I’m wondering is, does evolution serve as the metaphorical Prince Edward to Richard III? Is evolution the young dauphin who undeniably reminds the usurping tyrant of his illegitimacy? Does evolution stand as the nagging reminder to the existence of chaos and our exposure to its potent forces? Do we staunchly deny evolution’s existence existentially hoping to cling to a belief that God wants our neat life to continue and is actively protecting its order?
 

Posted by John Welch

7/03/2005 07:25:00 PM  

John,
Interesting. I've often wondered why so many LDS balk at the idea that homosexuality, in general, isn't a choice (I don't see how it could be, my overdrive heterosexuality wasn't a choice), but they then rapidly accept other inherited variations from the norm as G-d's will. If G-d allows chaos as we develop in the womb (which he clearly does), why would sexual orientation be any different? My suspicion is that the human mind is so complex, that during embryonic and fetal development, sometimes something goes wrong. To those who say G-d wouldn’t do that, I ask why does the almighty allow any birth defect? It’s not a perfect world; as per the more common interpretation of the Adam-Eve myth (not the LDS one), we’re living G-d's plan B now.

On a side note, is Harold Kushner the guy who said "Expecting life to be good to you because you're a righteous person is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you're a vegetarian.". I love that quote. 

Posted by Steve (FSF)

7/06/2005 03:08:00 PM  

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