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Two Senses in Which the Universe Is Designed

The idea of divine “design” is not one that process theologians naturally use, because it suggests that the creation of our universe came about in accordance with a detailed blueprint, prepared in advance. But if we understand the term “design” in a looser sense, to mean that the universe reflects some sort of purpose, then process theologians can speak of the universe as designed in two senses. First, the evolutionary process is viewed as reflecting a divine aim at increasing richness of experience, a directionality that is reflected in the rise of life and then the more complex forms of life. Second, the fact that our universe was able to bring forth life presupposed a basic cosmological order that can, with less qualification, be described as designed. I will discuss these two types of design in order.

Design in the Sense of a Divine Aim Towards Richness of Experience

Physicists, we are told, think of the universe as a physics experiment. <!g>Whitehead came to regard it as an aesthetic experiment, with the physics experiment being simply an aspect of this larger project. To explain: Experience is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable, meaning valuable in and for itself. Every individual, by hypothesis, has at least some slight degree of experience and thereby some slight degree of intrinsic value. But the intrinsic value of the simplest individuals, judged in terms of the aesthetic criteria of harmony, complexity, and intensity of experience, must be extremely trivial, compared with the intrinsic value of a human being, or even a bat. If, as Thomas Nagel has emphasized, we cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat,Thomas Nagel, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", in his Mortal Questions (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979).far less can we imagine what it is like to be at atom, or even an amoeba. The divine aim, by hypothesis, has been to bring about conditions that allow for the emergence of individuals with more complex modes of experience and thereby the capacity for greater intrinsic value. This aim is reflected in the increasing complexity that, even allowing for all necessary qualifications, clearly characterizes the evolutionary process.For recent discussions of whether we can speak of progress in the evolutionary process, see Matthew H. Nitecki, Evolutionary Progress (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1988). I have discussed...

The slowness of this process reflects the fact that the power behind this aim is not omnipotent in the traditional sense, not essentially the only center of power. Each event, having its own power of self-determination, can either adopt or resist divinely proffered novel possibilities through which the present situation could be transcended. And this present situation is supported by the power of the past, which weighs heavily on the present. Charles Peirce and William James had suggested that the so-called laws of nature are really its most long-standing habits,See William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890; New York: Dover, 1950), I: 104-05, and Peter Ochs, "Charles Sanders Peirce," in David Ray Griffin et al., Founders of Constructive Postmodern...which would mean that any type of enduring individual, such as a proton, a <!g>DNA molecule, or a living cell, would be a more or less long-standing habit. Peirce held that the longer a habit persists, the stronger it tends to become. This idea led him to the conclusion that the universe would become increasingly <!g>deterministic, as the habits of nature became stronger and stronger, thereby imposing themselves more and more heavily on the present. Whitehead, while endorsing the idea that the laws of nature are habits,A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938; New York: Free Press, 1968), 154. avoided the idea of increasing determinism partly by means of his doctrine of the divine reality as constantly presenting alternative possibilities. This divine influence, however, cannot unilaterally determine either what new possibility, if any, will be evoked or when this development will occur, because the divine evocative power is always competing with the power of the past embodied in the habits of enduring individuals. It may take, accordingly, hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years for an alternative possibility to be evoked into existence.

Although this hypothesis is consistent with both the tempo and the direction of the evolutionary process, it might be thought that it goes against a scientifically established randomness in the process. But the idea that all variations are random has more than one meaning. I have already endorsed one possible meaning, which is that variations involve chance in the <!g>ontological sense, an idea that <!g>Darwin himself and some neo-Darwinists have rejected. A meaning that many neo-Darwinists do insist upon is that variations are random in every other possible sense, which would exclude their being due even in the slightest to any sort of aim that would give a bias toward variations of a particular sort, such as variations that lead to greater structural complexity and thereby greater richness of experience. But the neo-Darwinian insistence that evolution is random in this sense is simply philosophical dogma, not grounded in any empirical discovery. The randomness that is central to neo-Darwinism as a scientific theory is randomness in a third sense,I have discussed these different meanings of randomness in Ch. 8 of Religion and Scientific Naturalism.according to which there is no tendency for variations to be adaptational, that is, advantageous for survival in the environment in which they occur. And the kind of tendency that process theology posits is not in conflict with randomness in this strict sense, because there is no necessary correlation between increased richness of experience and success in the struggle for survival. To give a human example: The emergence of the capacity to do higher mathematics, while it may have increased the satisfaction of some early human beings on the savannas of Africa, would not have increased the likelihood of their sowing their wild genes. The criterion of greater richness of experience is not in tension with neo-Darwinian randomness, except insofar as this randomness is used as a pseudo-scientific front for antitheistic bias.

The divine aim towards greater richness of experience means that there is, in spite of what I said earlier about the contingency of human beings, a sense in which we can regard ourselves as intended. That is, insofar as human experience involves dimensions that give it the capacity for greater intrinsic value than that enjoyed by our evolutionary predecessors, we can say that we reflect the divine aim. Although human beings as such were not intended, human-like beings were, insofar as they were possible. This would mean that, on other planets in the universe with the conditions for life to emerge and to evolve for many billions of years, we should expect there to be some planets with creatures that, no matter how different in physical constitution and appearance, would share some of our capacities, such as those for mathematics, music, and morality, or, more generally, truth, beauty, and goodness.

These capacities, however, imply the capacities for lying, for ugliness, and for immorality, such as genocide and ecological destruction. Must we not conclude, therefore, that the divine individual of process theology is as responsible for evil as was the deity of traditional <!g>theism? It is true that process theology’s deity is responsible for evil in one sense, namely, that if human beings had not been evoked into existence, the world would have been free from all the evils caused and experienced by human beings. The question of <!g>theodicy, however, is whether the divine reality is responsible in such a way as to be indictable, that is, blameworthy.

With regard to this question, process theism differs from traditional theism in two crucial respects. In the first place, given the omnipotence attributed to the deity of traditional theism, that deity could have created beings who were identical to us in virtually all respects, having the capacity for realizing most of the values we enjoy, differing only by having much less, or even no, power to bring about evil. Because this traditional deity created our world ex nihilo, all the principles of our world were freely chosen. There were no <!g>metaphysical principles lying in the nature of things, beyond divine volition. In process theology, by contrast, such principles do exist, and one of these principles is that an increase in the capacity for richness of experience is impossible without a correlative increase in freedom and the power to affect other beings. This principle means that every increase in the capacity for good entails an equal increase in the capacity for evil. Any being with our capacities to experience and create good, therefore, would necessarily have our capacities to experience and cause evil. Insofar as we think of the divine individual as confronting a choice with regard to the existence of human-like beings, the choice was only between having beings approximately like us, with our capacities for evil as well as for good, or no human-like beings whatsoever. The deity of process theology can be indicted because of human evil, therefore, only by those who can honestly say that our planet would have been better without human-like beings altogether.I have discussed this point in my three discussions of the problem of evil mentioned in note 11.

A second crucial difference between the two types of theism is that, according to traditional theism, every instance of evil that has occurred could have been unilaterally prevented by God. One version of traditional theism, to be sure, says that God gave us genuine freedom, so that we can freely choose to do evil. It remains the case, however, that the deity of traditional theism could always intervene either to determine our decisions or to cancel out the natural effects thereof--hence the anger of virulent antitheists such as <!g>Steven Weinberg. In process theism, by contrast, the divine power cannot do either of these. Although the human degree of freedom would not exist if the divine power had not led the evolutionary process to bring human beings into existence, now that we do exist the divine power cannot cancel out our power to make our own decisions and to inflict them on others. The sense of meaning that comes from seeing the evolutionary process as divinely influenced is not, therefore, undermined or rendered horrible by the conclusion that the “divine” influence is actually demonic, or at least indifferent.Antitheists sometimes charge that revisionary theists can overcome the problem of evil only by revising the conventional understanding theism so drastically that the resulting position is no longer intelligibly...

Design in the Sense of the Establishment of the Most Fundamental Contingent Principles of Our Cosmic Epoch I will conclude by briefly explaining the second sense in which process theology can regard our universe as designed. This second sense involves the much-discussed idea that our universe from the outset evidently embodied a number of “cosmic constants” that give the impression of being finely tuned in relation to each other, because if any of them were slightly different, life could never have evolved. And they do not seem to be simply “habits,” as usually understood--that is, to be modes of behavior that have developed gradually and are only usually, rather than always, followed. Some traditional theists have used this fact as new evidence that our universe is the product of Omnipotent Intelligence. Such theists might argue that, even if process theism, with its non-omnipotent deity, can do justice to the world’s evil, it cannot do justice to the best scientific account of how our universe originated. A divine being whose power can be resisted by the creatures could not, they might argue, have imposed all of these mathematical values with sufficient precision to pull off an initial creative event, such as a <!g>big bang, that would bring about all the conditions necessary for life to be possible in portions of the resulting universe. Although that conclusion might at first glance seem to follow from what I said earlier, I argue that it does not.

My argument is that, in a chaotic state prior to the beginning of our cosmic epoch, the two reasons why there is usually so much resistance to divine ideals would not apply. One of these reasons is that, as the evolutionary process increasingly brings forth more complex individuals, the world thereby has creatures with increasingly greater capacity for self-determination and thereby increasingly greater capacity to resist divine influence. In a chaotic state between cosmic epochs, however, the events would be extremely trivial, with a vanishingly small capacity to exercise self-determination.

The second reason why divine influence usually encounters so much resistance is that the divine intention to instill new ideals, meaning new possible modes of being and interacting, is usually in competition with the power of the past, the modes of being that constitute the essence of enduring individuals. However, in the postulated chaos between the running down of one cosmic epoch and the starting up of another, there would, by definition, be no enduring individuals, therefore no entrenched modes of being to force themselves upon present events. The chaos would not be absolute, to be sure, because events would still exemplify the necessary metaphysical principles, which by definition obtain in all possible worlds, including the relatively chaotic periods between cosmic epochs. But there would be no contingent cosmological principles constituting well-entrenched habits. In this situation, therefore, the divine influence, in seeking to get a set of contingent principles embodied in the universe, would have no competition from any other contingent principles.

In the first instant of the creation of a particular universe, accordingly, divine evocative power could produce quasi-coercive effects. A divine spirit, brooding over the chaos, would only have to think “Let there be X!”--with X standing for the finely-tuned set of contingent principles embodied in our world at the outset. To say this is not to suggest that this effect would necessarily have occurred immediately. It is also not to deny the possibility that our universe might have been preceded by a number of brief universes, which were not sufficiently fine-tuned to last very long. But it is to suggest an alternative to the three major ways of thinking of the laws of physics of our universe: that they are necessary, that they exist purely by chance, or that they are the product of an Omnipotent Designer. This alternative possibility is that a creator without coercive power could, in a chaotic situation, produce quasi-coercive effects. From then on, however, the divine persuasive activity would always face competition from the power embodied in the modes of being reflecting these contingent principles, so that divine power would never again, as long as the cosmic epoch exists, be able to produce quasi-coercive effects. In this way, process theism, while maintaining that God’s agency in our universe is always persuasive, can nevertheless account for the remarkable contingent order on which our particular universe is based. This suggestion, I should add, will not be found in Whitehead’s writings. But it does seem consistent with his position.

In sum: Although Whiteheadian process theology shares with late modern thought the rejection of many of the senses in which the universe had traditionally been thought to be designed, it can speak of our universe as designed in two significant senses. In doing so, furthermore, it can arguably do justice to the best scientific evidence about cosmic and biological evolution without being undermined by the horrendous evils that have resulted from the creation of life, especially human life.

Contributed by: <!g>David Ray Griffin

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
Is the Universe Designed? Yes and No

Two Senses in Which the Universe Is Designed

Some Basic Whiteheadian Notions
Six Senses in Which the Universe Is Not Designed.


David Ray Griffin

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