The Role of God in Coyne's A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution

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A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution

In this article, A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution, by George Coyne, two main points are discussed. The first being that the Intelligent Design (ID) Movement showcases a God as a designer God, which actually belittles God despite evoking some sense of power and might. The other point is that the current human understanding of the universe, untainted by religious considerations, provides for those who believe in God an opportunity to reflect on their beliefs. Coyne makes very clear in his abstract that he distinguishes between science and religion. That is that they are two separate human pursuits. “Science is completely neutral with respect to theistic or atheistic implications which may be drawn from scientific results” (Coyne).

He begins his argument by drawing on the development of a star by laws of physics and how the life and death of stars are so important to the existence of man. That is, the elements given off by the stars’ processes are what provide the material for of human toenails and fingernails (Coyne). Such complexities are astounding to Coyne, evidenced by his comment that we as people have developed the capacity to put the universe in our heads with the use of mathematics and physics. However, it is because we can put it in our heads that further questions that go beyond science come to mind.

He later explains that we do not know everything about the universe but that it would be foolish to deny that the human brain is a result of a process of chemical complexification. “After the universe became rich in certain basic chemicals, those chemicals got together in successive steps to make ever more complex molecules,” (Coyne). And finally in some extraordinary chemical process, the human brain came to be, the most complicated machine known. He does make clear that when he speaks about the brain as a machine, he is sure not to exclude the spiritual dimension of the human being. “I am simply prescinding from it and talking about the human brain as a biological, chemical mechanism, evolving out of the universe,” (Coyne).

The second section of his piece discusses the creation of the universe was one of chance or design. To him, the first thing that must be addressed is that the problem is not formulated correctly. “It is not just a question of chance or necessity because, first of all, it is both.” He goes on to say there is a third element called “fertility” or “opportunity,” which means that the universe is so prolific in offering the opportunity for the success of both chance and necessary processes that such a character of the universe must be included in the discussion. It must be acknowledged that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, containing about 100 billion galaxies each of which contains 100 billion stars of an immense variety.

Coyne is very clever to make the analogy that the for 13.7 billion years the universe has been playing the lottery. By this he means that when one speaks about a small chance, it means that it is very unlikely that a certain event would happen, of course. The “very unlikely” can be calculated, taking into account the size of the universe, number of stars, how many stars it would have taken to develop the planets etc. In other words, it is not guesswork. There is a foundation in fact for making each successive calculation (Coyne).

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The point he tries to make (brilliantly), that from a strictly mathematical analysis, called the mathematics of nonlinear dynamics, one could say that as this process goes on and more complex molecules develop, there is more and more direction to this process. As the complexity increases, the future complexity becomes more and more predetermined. “In such wise did the human brain come to be and is still evolving. Can we call this process ‘destiny?’” (Coyne).

In finalizing his piece, Cone discusses how the believer should interpret this scientific picture of life’s origins. He asks if we need God to explain this, and he answers with a very succinct “no.” In his stance, he says that to need God would be a very denial of God, that God is not a response to a need. Instead, we should seek for the fullness of God in creation; we should not need God; we should accept Him when He comes to us. His view also holds that creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis, and the fact that the Judaic-Christian faith is “radically creationist” is rooted in a belief that everything is a gift from God. However, for Coyne personally, the universe is not a God and cannot exist independently of God.

A key statement from Coyne was his proposition that believers should move away from the notion that of a dictator God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. He says, “Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.” Evidencing Scripture, he says that it anthropomorphically a God who gets angry, who disciplines, and who nurtures the universe. Coyne goes on to suggest that the universe has a certain vitality of its own much like a child a does. The universe has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement. One disciplines a child but tries to preserve and enrich the individual character of the child and its own passion for life. A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood, to come to make its own choices. In the same way, God handles the universe (Coyne). It is for these reasons that he claims that Intelligent Design diminishes God and makes him an engineer who designs systems rather than a lover.

In all, he says these types of images are very weak, but we do not discuss God in any other way. The universe as we know it today through science is a method to gain analogical knowledge of God. For believers in modern science, this does say something about God, it provides a challenge to traditional beliefs about God. God with his unlimited freedom is continuously creating a world which reflects such freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process with greater and greater complexity (Coyne). God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, and loves. Coyne finalizes his work by asking the question, “Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding crude creationism?” (Coyne).

Overall I very much like the ideas Coyne puts forth. I have questioned for many years why so often we separate evolution from religious belief. Though my Orthodox church would disagree, I have considered and held strongly the idea that evolution and God go hand-in-hand, and quite well, at that. Why is it so preposterous to consider the possibility that man did evolve over time, alongside other living creatures, but it was God who drove that process? Coyne has said that like a parent disciplines and nurtures her child, God does so for the universe. That is, God sets in motion evolution and created it as an evolving entity, but allows it to create what it will by its own continuous process and development. He then may intervene and participate if He so chooses.

The only thing over which I would disagree with Coyne would be his claim that we should accept God when he comes to us rather than seek him out ourselves. Yes, we should accept him when he calls to us, but we should definitely seek him for ourselves, too. Even the Bible tells us to seek God. “Seek the Lord and His strength; seek His face continually” (Chronicles 16:11). Coyne makes the analogy of God as a parent very often throughout his writing, but would a parent not like it for their own child not to give them a phone call every now and then? Nor pay them a visit out of the blue as a way of just saying “hello” and to check-in? By not seeking God for ourselves, we forfeit the opportunity to learn about him, develop a relationship with him, and engulf ourselves in his unending love for us. We are his children, indeed, and because of that, we should unhesitantly and unceasingly seek him. “The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God,” (Psalms 14:02).

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