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A Short Note on Theistic Evolution and Frontloading

I know, none of you readers believe I am capable of being brief, but I’m going to try! This post was triggered by my reading of Richard B. Hoppe’s post Dissent Out of Bounds on Uncommon Dissent (Oops, make that “Descent”), which is largely about Uncommon Descent’s comment censorship (because of which I do not comment there and I ceased tracking back to them), but the comments in question bring up some excellent points.

One key is a definition of design. There’s some good discussion of that in the comments. But the issue I want to address is the matter of design and theistic evolution. It seems that when certain intelligent design (ID) proponents wish to make their movement seem larger, they include theistic evolutionists, on the grounds that if we believe the universe is designed, we do, in fact, believe in intelligent design. One assumes, of course, that we don’t believe in unintelligent design! When we’re to be excluded because we don’t believe in the right type and time of design, then we’re asked to produce a place, time, and proof of design, which in general we don’t think possible.

Of course this level of discussion of design is really theological, but it does outline the distinction between some theistic evolutionists, who would expect to observe essentially the same natural processes at all points as a non-theistic evolutionist, and those who hold the “evolution guided by God” view, in which things evolve for the most part, but God has his finger in the pie. Michael Behe, for example, could be described as a theistic evolutionist in many ways. He accepts common descent, as I understand it, and thus would expect much of the data not to differ from data favoring simple variation + natural selection.

But there are two important ways of looking at the general design of the universe that are very important to distinguish. The first is called frontloading. “Frontloading” refers to the idea that God placed certain design elements into the universe, or into life at the beginning. For example, one can assume that God created the first life-form and put certain elements in its DNA that would eventually result in complex structures. It seems to me that this notion could be tested, because one should find apparent “junk” DNA in early creatures that looks like the DNA that creates complex structures in later life forms. Perhaps we’ll get to that level of detail at some time in the future. Frontloading could also be accomplished in a fully deterministic universe by launching the big bang with precisely the right set of elements. Don’t concern yourself with the complexity of this operation–God is, after all, infinite.

The second way of looking at design can be understood by analogy with a machine. If I create a simple machine for sorting various rocks into various sizes, the resulting piles of rock and gravel will look designed. If I go looking, I will find the machine, and then assume that the machine was designed to produce the result in question. While I can say that the process that creates the piles of rocks is designed, I cannot discover more and less designed parts of them. I go back to a single act of design.

Within limits, this machine is more analogous to my view of the universe. God’s design is that the universe naturally should produce variety. Note that I’m not referring to producing specific creatures, or even types of creatures–I’m talking simply about variety. In this variety there may even be creatures with consciousness. How much of the design of the universe goes into permitting consciousness as an option? I have no idea. But it is produced. Thus there is a creator God beyond the bounds of the natural universe (well, “bounds” is the best word I can think of) who created a fully functional universe that produces massive variety. There is no pre-inserted DNA to produce flagella or even consciousness. Those are merely possibilities of the wondrous universe in which we live.

Consciousness, choice, and creativity are, in my view, the essence of the image of God, and that image would apply to any creature produced in the universe that possessed those traits, and not merely to humanity. Of course our telling of the creation story focuses on us, our consciousness and our creativity. But I see no reason to assume that the universe that God created is unable to produce such consciousness, or that it would do so only once, here.

I’m not sufficiently versed in the sciences to argue about the origin of life. But as I see it, it would be a blemish on an otherwise marvelous creation to suggest that in order to produce life, God had to specially intervene. Of course that’s a horrible reason for believing that life is part of the variety that can be produced spontaneously. It’s pure aesthetics. But from the little bit of science I read, I think my aesthetic preference is gaining ground.

Watch the science literature. I’m out on a limb on this one, and you can throw nasty comments in a few decades if I’m wrong!

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  1. I like the analogy of the rock piles. As for the origin of life, I can certainly see it as a natural consequence of the larger design. The problem is, from a scientific viewpoint, we just haven’t figured it out yet. As a molecular biologist, I was always attracted to the RNA theory back when it was popular. Today, that theory as well as the Urey-Miller experiment have little scientific grounds on which to stand.

    I don’t really have a problem with God setting in motion the wheels of the universe, and then later intervening at various stages, including the creation of life. I agree that it sounds inelegant and unnecessary for an omnipotent being. Maybe we can think of it as a continuing process of refinement.

  2. Interesting. Like you I think, I have a problem with the idea that God interfered in a special way to create life and new life forms. And I would agree in “expect[ing] to observe essentially the same natural processes at all points as a non-theistic evolutionist“. But I wouldn’t put all of God’s design activity up front at the creation. Rather, as I see it, God is continually intervening in the universe, perhaps within apparent quantum probabilities, such that what seems to be random is not in fact totally random, but is deliberately chosen as a step towards God’s purposes. This is essentially the same point as I was trying to make in my unfinished series Kingdom Thermodynamics, where I also looked at the issue from the alternative viewpoint of the universe moving towards predefined final boundary conditions, such that causality does not apply.

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