David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Is There is a God-Design to the
Cosmos that Remains Incognito?
The theory of evolution doesn't necessitate a divine being or teleological drive, even if we wish it were otherwise.
John White played an instrumental role in getting Ken Wilber first work, The Spectrum of Consciousness, accepted by the Theosophical Publishing House in 1977. He has had a long career in the print world and has been at the forefront of advocating higher states of consciousness. Several of his books, particularly What is Enlightenment? and Kundalini, Evolution and Enlightenment, have had a lasting impact in transpersonal psychology circles. I have had the privilege of reading many of White's writings and have greatly benefitted by his insightful contributions. Therefore, I was pleased to see his latest essay, "Evolution: An Enlightened View" on Integral World.”
White's thesis is a simple but profound one: “Evolution is a divinely driven process by which God as Spirit expresses itself through the production of evermore complex forms. Natural processes are really acts of God.” This notion of theistic evolution, of course, is not a new idea and has a long and impressive pedigree, including such notable thinkers as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, the famed skeptic, Martin Gardner, and Cardinal John Henry Newman who famously quipped, “Mr. Darwin's theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill ... and I do not [see] that 'the accidental evolution of organic beings' is inconsistent with divine design—It is accidental to us, not to God.”
White argues that religion and science don't necessarily have to be at continual loggerheads “if they recognize a transcendent perspective which embraces and reconciles them. It is found in enlightenment traditions.”
Now as much as I enjoy and appreciate John White's overarching metaphysic, so clearly written and expressed (foregoing the usual sleight of hand obfuscations often common in such purviews—see William Lane Craig and Chuck Missler for examples of such), I don't find his article persuasive or evidential in the least.
I suspect it is because White isn't really presenting a detailed and engaged argument to convince theistic doubters and skeptics, but rather simply giving voice to his long held spiritual views and how he perceives the cosmos at large. As a personal statement of his own beliefs I have no argument with White. That is certainly his prerogative.
But as a substantial explanation of how the universe is unfolding White's essay is really no different than any other creationist argument, since it overlooks the very heart of what evolution by natural selection can explain without resorting to god or supernaturalism.
White sees the hand of the Divine everywhere, such as when he writes, “Natural processes are really acts of God.”
The sticking point here, and one brim full of assumptions, is precisely what we mean when we employ such an all-purpose term as “God.” Einstein used it as a placeholder for understanding the laws of nature, but never actually believed in a personal god nor in life after death, remaining purely agnostic on such ultimacies. Whereas other thinkers, such as Francis Collins, the distinguished project leader behind unraveling the human genome, views God in a Christian context, arguing that “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory.”
One wonders to what degree Einstein and Collins would agree with White's thesis and where exactly they would depart company. God is such a nebulous term that it is more akin to an all-purpose chameleon that can change function and shape by whoever invokes it.
In any case, I think it might be fruitful to do a point by point analysis of White's essay from a skeptic's perspective, following the lead of such critics as H.L. Mencken, and Bertrand Russell. I realize right at the outset that this type of rejoinder won't win any converts from those who are already deeply entrenched in their religious persuasions (be it of the Roman Catholic or Adi Da variety). But my aim is to underline once again that the theory of evolution doesn't necessitate a divine being or teleological drive, even if we wish it were otherwise. Indeed, the very reason Darwin's theory is so radical and powerful (and remains so) is because it explains how the cosmos unfolded without a guiding intelligence.
Almost right out of the gate, John White admits that “In the strict scientific sense, evolution means a process by which life arose from nonliving matter and subsequently developed as a succession of types, entirely by natural means—i.e., no supernatural factor was involved.”
But he is not satisfied with that limited parameter and instead posits that “On the basis of my reason, research and personal experience with enlightenment traditions, I reject the part which prohibits supernaturalism. From the perspective of enlightenment, all is divine and everything in the cosmos is the work or play of God the Creator-Spirit—what America's founders, in the Declaration of Independence, called 'nature's God.' Nature is God in material form; God or what might be called Supernature infuses and pervades all of nature.”
White doesn't sufficiently elaborate on why such a supernatural invocation is necessary. To wit, one is reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace's oft quoted response to Napoleon about why he didn't include god in his system explaining the universe. Whether it is embellished or not, the underlying revelation remains the same. W. W. Rouse Ball provides us with a rich recollection of what transpired and the obvious insight of Laplace's well-timed retort,
“Laplace went in state to Napoleon to present a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, 'M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.' Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. ("I had no need of that hypothesis.") Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses. ("Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.")
The very reason Darwin's and Wallace's exposition of evolution by natural selection was (and is) considered so powerful was exactly because it didn't invoke superluminal causation. Essentially, if physics, chemistry, and biology can indeed adequately explain how and why complex life forms emerge from simpler ones then (ala Occam's Razor) invoking a supreme deity is superfluous.
Yet, White goes further and axiomatically claims that, “The process of change in nature from a lower, simpler or worse state to a higher, more complex, better state (which is how Mr. Webster defines evolution) does not happen because blind forces and random events propel it on the basis of mere chance. They happen because God wills it intelligently, creatively and lawfully—that is, according to first principles and laws.”
Here White succumbs to a deep misunderstanding of how evolution actually works since natural selection isn't mere chance. As Christie Wilcox, writing for Scientific American, explains,
“Evolution isn't predictable, and randomness is key in determining how things change. But that's not the same as saying life evolves by chance. That's because while the cause of evolution is random (mutations in our genes) the processes of evolution (selection) is not. It's kind of like playing poker—the hand you receive is random, but the odds of you winning with it aren't. And like poker, it's about much more than just what you're dealt. Outside factors—your friend's ability to bluff you in your poker game, or changing environmental conditions in the game of life—also come into play. So while evolution isn't random, it is a game of chance, and given how many species go extinct, it's one where the house almost always wins.”
Ironically, White's very thesis—that “God's intelligent will is behind life's complexity and emergence” is (sorry for the bad pun) the very antithesis of Darwinian evolution, since the latter's explanatory power is derived by showing how purely physical forces can and do give rise to increased complexity within certain environmental niches.
White reveals his own religious dogma (and without any supporting evidences whatsoever) when he unhesitatingly proclaims, “Science has recognized some of the laws of the cosmos, but has not yet recognized the lawmaker. God is the motive force of evolution. God is the origin-source of all life. God is the creator-artist behind the entire panorama of the cosmos. Yet God is not a mythic deity or anthropomorphic figure. God is the Ultimate Reality of all existence, which is Consciousness, and thus the sages say it is infused with intelligence.”
While these univocal declarations are not uncommon amongst religionists of varying stripes, they are not scientific facts and in the context of an article on evolution do not help enlighten readers about the nuts and bolts of how such a divine intelligence is truly operative in the universe. To a more observant eye, and one not aligned with a spiritual purview, the cosmos doesn't look infused with intelligence but incredible amounts of empty space and energy that produces no life (intelligent or otherwise) for billions and billions of years. And in the one place that we know where life has emerged it has done so in a horrific cauldron where the only absolute certainty is death, which is usually preceded with unimaginable pain and suffering.
H.L. Mencken, the acerbic critic of the early part of the 20th century, provides a suggestive counter-ballast to White when he writes,
“The first effect of what used to be called natural philosophy is to fill its devotee with wonder at the marvels of God. This explains why the pursuit of science, so long as it remains superficial, is not incompatible with the most naif sort of religious faith. But the moment the student of the sciences passes this stage of childlike amazement and begins to investigate the inner workings of natural phenomena, he begins to see how ineptly many of them are managed, and so he tends to pass from awe of the Creator to criticism of the Creator, and once he has crossed that bridge he has ceased to be a believer. One finds plenty of neighborhood physicians, amateur botanists, high-school physics teachers and other such quasi-scientists in the pews on Sunday, but one never sees a Huxley there, or a Darwin, or an Ehrlich.”
Mencken's ascertainment about looking deeper into the creation and finding the creator's apparent design wanting is a telling one. As I used to remark to my students at California State University, Long Beach, in our upper division Science and Religion course, “If we bought our body at Costco or Target, with all that can and does go wrong with it, we would have returned it by now and asked for a refund.”
It doesn't bode well for God's so-called intelligence when over 99.9 percent of every living species has gone extinct.
It doesn't bode well for God's so-called intelligence when over 99.9 percent of every living species has gone extinct. Indeed, it makes no sense at all and that is why Darwin's and Wallace's great advance was to show how and why purely natural processes (without an over-arching guiding Supreme Archon) accounts for the wide diversity we see around us. It also explains why there is so much disease and pestilence in a world that should lack such if it were “intelligently” planned. All of this reminds me of a long conversation I once had with my late father-in-law as we were driving from La Jolla to San Clemente. As an architect himself who had built a number of buildings (from the Kona coast in Hawaii to Anchorage, Alaska), he couldn't conceive how the universe was void of an Absolute Architect since according to him “everything is so well engineered.” Richard Dawkins' argument about a “blind” watchmaker just didn't make any sense to him.
But as Bertrand Russell would point out, we are not really being honest about what we observe, since any close analysis of the biological proceedings will show us that Hobbes was correct to point out the obviousness of it all that the “life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The current pandemic is just yet another reminder of how impersonal nature is and how random it can be in targeting its victims.
And lest we forget, every single life form is a victim in this eat or be eaten matrix, where no one comes out unscathed and alive. This is why Siddhartha Gautama's first noble truth has a universal import to it: dukkha.
So, while I can appreciate John White's theism and his views on enlightenment, they are woefully deficient in helping us understand our place in the cosmos when compared to evolutionary theory as proposed by the neo-synthesis and beyond. White's is providing us with a god-infused credendum, not a convincing rationalist one.
White goes off the theological deep-end when he pontificates the following, again without any supporting data save his own cherished ideology:
“I have no problem with that creationist claim. From my perspective, it doesn't matter whether the various human species were natural mutations or special creations. There is another view which allows that. Specifically, it says that evolution is divinely initiated, divinely guided and divinely destined. God is the motive force of all history, including evolutionary history. So evolution is really another mode of God's action in nature. That does not change, whether Darwin is ultimately proven right or wrong, i.e., whether natural selection, mutation or special creation eventually supplies the mechanism by which new species arrive on scene. From the point of view of enlightenment, science's godless chance 'mutation' is actually God's 'special creation' occurring through processes which simply are not yet fully perceived and understood by science.”
Notice how White reveals his own metaphysical agenda when he confesses, “It doesn't matter whether the various human species were natural mutations or special creations.” Essentially, White is not engaging in a scientific argument at all, since the details simply don't matter to him because he already has an inviolate dogma which at the end of the day (facts be damned) demands that “God is the origin-source of all life.”
Yes, religious doctrinaires can hold such ideas, but that doesn't make them any more convincing and it certainly doesn't qualify them as “scientific.” While White can allege that his views of God are not mythological, the entire edifice of his argument is layer by layer infused with mythic rhetoric since he doesn't specifically engage at any point with Darwin's key point—which is that evolution can be explained without invoking an intelligent designer.
Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic, shows where and when White's whitewashing of creationism and evolution goes off track. He also elaborates on why so many are hesitant to accept the implications of evolution,
Kenneth R. Miller
“I think one of the reasons why evolution is such a contentious issue, quite frankly, is the same reason you can go into a bar and start a fight by saying something about somebody's mother. Evolution concerns who we are and how we got here. And to an awful lot of people, the story of evolution, the story of our continuity with every other living thing on this planet, that's not a story they want to hear. They favor an entirely different story, in which our ancestry is separate, our biology distinct, and the whole notion of our lineage traceable not to other organisms, but to some sort of divine power and divine presence. But it's absolutely true that our ancestry traces itself along the same thread as that of every other living organism. That, for many people, is the unwelcome message, and I think that's why evolution has been, is, and will remain such a controversial idea for many years to come. . . . So by placing the supernatural as a cause in science, you effectively have what you might call a science-stopper. If you attribute an event to the supernatural, you can by definition investigate it no further.
If you close off investigation, you don't look for natural causes. If we had done that 100 years ago in biology, think of what we wouldn't have discovered because we would have said, 'Well, the designer did it. End of story. Let's go do something else.' It would have been a terrible day for science. . . . But the reality is that evolutionary change is restricted. It's restricted by the laws of physics and chemistry. It's restricted by the nature of molecular biology. It's restricted by the constraints of developmental biology during development. Most importantly, evolutionary change is governed by natural selection, and natural selection is not a random process at all. Natural selection selects for successful phenotypes, for successful combinations of characteristics that actually work, and that's not random at all.”
Miller goes right to White's core point when he posits that though he is a scientist and has faith in God, it “doesn't make faith a scientific proposition.” And though I like White's upfront and declarative clarity, there is nothing in his article that withstands rational scrutiny and admits to the reader that he needs to change cerebral venues. To the contrary, White's essay reminds one anew of why biology, sans god-centered engineering, has made so much progress in the last one hundred and sixty years.
White is convinced that evolution is on a ceaseless path of progress, echoing Teilhard de Chardin's, The Phenomenon of Man. Yet, such an optimistic prediction is not necessarily true, given how contingent evolutionary pathways have and will be. If we rewind the evolutionary clock we can easily see that nothing is progressively certain and that as Alan Lightman from MIT entitled one of his more readable books, we live in an “Accidental Universe,” where all sorts of probabilities are in play. If the Chicxulub impactor never occurred sixty-five million years ago, then human beings as we know them today may never have come into existence. Or, astronomically speaking, if the sun was closer or farther away, life may never have fructified. So many variances and so many variables so it isn't hard to imagine that human beings could end up like their extinct dino ancestors. The distinguished mathematician-philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who interestingly won his Nobel Prize in Literature, elaborates:
“There are other objections to this evolutionary optimism. There is every reason to believe that life on our planet will not continue forever so that any optimism based upon the course of terrestrial history must be temporary and limited in its purview. There may, of course, be life elsewhere but, if there is, we know nothing about it and have no reason to suppose that it bears more resemblance to the virtuous theologians than to Hitler. The earth is a very tiny corner of the universe. It is a little fragment of the solar system. The solar system is a little fragment of the Milky Way. And the Milky Way is a little fragment of the many millions of galaxies revealed by modern telescopes. In this little insignificant corner of the cosmos there is a brief interlude between two long lifeless epochs. In this brief interlude, there is a much briefer one containing man. If really man is the purpose of the universe the preface seems a little long. One is reminded of some prosy old gentleman who tells an interminable anecdote all quite uninteresting until the rather small point in which it ends. I do not think theologians show a suitable piety in making such a comparison possible.
It has been one of the defects of theologians at all times to over-estimate the importance of our planet. No doubt this was natural enough in the days before Copernicus when it was thought that the heavens revolve about the earth. But since Copernicus and still more since the modern exploration of distant regions, this pre-occupation with the earth has become rather parochial. If the universe had a Creator, it is hardly reasonable to suppose that He was specially interested in our little corner. And, if He was not, His values must have been different from ours, since in the immense majority of regions life is impossible.
And while we can readily agree with John White that human beings have special abilities that distinguish us from other primates (such as sophisticated language and culture), the neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland is right to show that we too often project our own anthropocentrism when we make hierarchies of better or worse when nature itself appears oblivious of such rankings. Comments Churchland,
“It does seem to be the case that our language system is unique, but, on the other hand, there are some things that monkeys can do that we can't do—swing through the trees, for example. Or hang upside down from their tails, if they have tails. And so forth. And there are lots of things that a beaver can do that I can't do—I can't build a dam the way a beaver can build a dam, and not just because I don't have the big front teeth to chew things down, but because they have the knowledge and the skill of how to put a dam together. So I don't think that 'higher' and 'lower' is necessarily a useful way to think of it. People have this inclination to think that there is this 'Great Chain of Being, and, hot-dog, we're on top of it. Or that we're fashioned in the image of God. It's silly. We are evolutionarily somewhere along the line, and what would be nice to know would be what it is about our brains that enables us to have a culture and that enables us to do such things as use language. But that's not something that's necessarily more valuable than being able to do what a gorilla does or what an orangutan does.”
White also at times seems to be channeling Adi Da speak (or is that Brad Reynolds?) when he writes that “Science's conception of God is fundamentalist anthropomorphism—an immature, mythic understanding of the divine which must be outgrown through mystical ascent in consciousness to attainment of the splendid vision of God as Spirit in action, operating lawfully throughout nature in ways which science has rightly described, but only in part.”
Again, White has the right to his religious views, but let's not pretend for a nano-second that any of this New Age hyperbole has scientific merit or necessitates a reorientation about how to incorporate intelligent design into our discussions. To the contrary, such rhetoric is no different in import than what one hears from a Christian fundamentalist talking about the holy spirit. Naturally, White, and those aligned with his way of thinking, believe that they are dissimilar to their theological cousins and have somehow risen above the cultural restrictions of their time, but perhaps a word of caution in this regard may be in order. Bertrand Russell, as always, the consummate logician and mathematician, provides us with a necessary warning shot across the bow:
“We all know that there are absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not know, dear reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. I cannot, therefore, think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions. My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own.
White appears to want to tackle science on its own merits, but his attempt to do so devolves into premature psychological labeling when he writes (again without substantial back-up),
“Science is essentially based in ego consciousness. That is not wrong in and of itself; in fact, science is one of the high points of development for the egoic state of consciousness. But it tends to reject what is higher or otherwise beyond ego, and that is indeed wrong. It is what misleads science into scientism—namely, declaring that atheism and materialism define reality. For example, scientism's rejection of the parapsychological evidence for postmortem existence of human consciousness says, in effect: when you're dead, you're dead—that's all there is to it. But when examined outside the perceptual boundaries and blinders of scientism, the evidence provides—as mentioned at the outset of this essay—a rational basis for religious faith.”
It is richly ironic that White would accuse science of being caught in “ego” when, in point of fact, the whole endeavor is to move away from one's own subjectivity and have differing observations tested objectively. In other words, science is actually a method to move beyond one's own ego and I-ness in terms of having a vested in interest in this or that result, and letting others verify or falsify what they have uncovered. Double-blind testing is the very opposite of “egoic.” Perhaps John White should look more closely at Adi Da's unadulterated self-promotion for a good example of “egoic” and not confuse it with science's attempt to minimize self-aggrandizement.
Also, White shows his misunderstanding of science when he writes that science “tends to reject what is higher or otherwise beyond ego, and that is indeed wrong. It is what misleads science into scientism, declaring atheism and materialism define reality.”
First, science as process looks first and foremost to evidence, not whether something is egoic or beyond such. Second, science doesn't “declare” atheism or even “materialism” since it is a procedure of inquiry that proffers competing hypotheses which are then vetted to find which one provides the most comprehensive results. In the end, it is a practical endeavor even if we may later make philosophical appraisements on the basis of what it uncovers. Third, White jumps the gun (and again reveals his own not so hidden agenda) when he alleges that “parapsychological evidence on post-mortem existence of human consciousness” has been rejected. To the contrary, a number of scientific studies have been published by refereed journals which give voice to NDE's studies with suggestive non-materialistic reports, such as Pim Van Lommel's provocative findings in Lancet, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Saying something is “scientism” is too often a straw built piñata which when bludgeoned reveals nothing of real substance except that it serves as a distraction from responding appropriately to findings that upend our cherished beliefs.
This may stick in the throat of those who have misconceptions about the nature of scientific endeavors, but as systematic process for exploring how and why things work the way they do it is intrinsically humble. Why? Because it begins with a position of “unknowing” and then proceeds to vet and openly air out competing models to see which one best explains the given phenomenon. It isn't perfect and it is never wholly correct in its pursuit of truth and because we know this from the outset it remains an open-ended pursuit.
Yet, when I read White and others of like persuasion, I see that they pontificate as if they already know how the game is played and are on intimate terms with the Creator and his intentions. This, to be sure, isn't science and it smacks of uncalled hubris.
Yes, I get that there may be much beyond the reach of our rational minds and that exploring the depths of our consciousness is a worthwhile journey. But let's be careful not to mistake our premature map making with the transcendental territory we wish to investigate.
I too believe that meditation, contemplation, deep prayer, and other spiritually oriented exercises and techniques are important and valuable, but in our haste, we need not mix and confuse metaphors.
For example, I don't think hijacking the term “evolution” from its more specific and biological mooring helps in promoting spiritual unfoldment. The idea of a “higher science” is a confused and unnecessary term, since it presumes an a priori knowledge (often hiding its more dogmatic tendencies) about what is transcendent. The spiritual adventure is precisely that because we are not certain about what we will find and how we will ultimately interpret it. That is a truly wonderful enterprise but it doesn't need bad arguments and faulty presuppositions to make it so.
In conclusion, I want to commend John White for his numerous writings and for being so clear in his presentations. This is a welcome relief when far too often those championing a spiritual perspective indulge in unnecessary jargon to camouflage their real intentions.
I can agree with John White about the inner voyage of the Self and the various methods that may be employed to experience differing states of consciousness. But I see no need at this stage to misunderstand evolution and natural selection (and what it can portend) to push a preset theological agenda. Science, unlike, Integral dogmatism looks at evolution and doesn't pretend to know where it will lead in its labyrinthine maneuvers. Science in other words is open sourced. Perhaps we too can learn a lesson from that same openness and venture forth with less pretensions about what the universe has in store for us Homo sapiens, transitional as we may be in this vast life pageantry.