By bridging aspects of intelligent design with evolution in a new approach they call “possibilism,” authors Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer probably haven’t solved the American culture wars. But they might have.
Most people have a hard time believing that existence appeared out of nowhere. So they turn to available worldviews that incorporate purpose and meaning, which are generally religious. This has resulted in a deep split between a strict materialist worldview and other worldviews that see some intelligence within existence. They justify their respective positions by reducing the issues to a polarity between religious spirituality and secular materialism. This conflict cuts to the foundation of how and why existence exists. At one extreme are “arguments from design,” on the other side are materialist, evolutionary perspectives. (In the seeming middle are those who say God designed evolution, which is really just a more sophisticated argument from design.)
The vital questions are “purpose versus purposelessness” or “meaning versus meaninglessness.” Purposelessness is abhorrent to intelligent design believers; purpose is anathema to most of traditional science. The materialist scientists have no truck with what they consider the anthropomorphic indulgences that the “designers” exhibit. They focus on the absurdity of a transcendent God—an easy target. Intelligent “intelligent designers” rail against science’s narrow vision, its refusal to give any real explanation for the extraordinary confluence of statistically improbable events and finely tuned, coordinated configurations of exacting precision down to mathematically unimaginably small sub-atomic levels that allow this universe to be at all.
Design advocates point out that science can only prove design does not fit a very narrow scientific paradigm. Materialist scientists in turn say that without science as a baseline for truth and objectivity, any flight of fancy is possible. Obviously these two positions operate out of separate worldviews with different conceptions of “proof.” Scientific worldviews only address what is falsifiable and provable by the scientific method. But the scientific assumption that no intelligence is involved in the construction of the universe is likewise not provable by science.
Our approach to evolution cannot ultimately be proven in the ordinary sense of proof. This is because “proof” is always embedded in a worldview, and thus is always circular. So we speak to reasonableness and “most-likelihood.” After all, these are all one has to go on when the moorings of science prove insufficient to deal with life’s important questions and issues.
How this topic is viewed has vital consequences. Let’s first agree that evolution of some sort operates within the play of existence. The view we are putting forth features an intelligence without a designer or a specific design. We find that this perspective gives a better explanation of the evolutionary process, including where humanity finds itself at this historic and dangerous evolutionary moment. It is also a source of hope, offering a realistic possibility that we are facing an inevitable evolutionary challenge that can be met.
Does greater complexity in evolution entail improvement? Of course, the easy way out is to refuse to link evolutionary change with improvement, claiming that values are simply manufactured by human needs—evolution’s fancy way of giving humans a survival edge because it allows us the illusions of purpose and meaning that give impetus to social change when necessary.
Scientific reductionists believe that all explanations could be reduced to the laws of physics—if we knew enough. Both scientific reductionists and emergentists argue that because on a purely physical level the cosmos constructs increasing complexities that both replicate and evolve, life and then consciousness would necessarily likewise appear, given a proper environment to do so. In other words, because of the way evolution works, statistically speaking, given the right combination of chemicals in the right environment, life is bound to appear. And then, because consciousness has some significant evolutionary survival advantages, it, too, would come forth at some point. Seeing that life and consciousness have evolved, this argument in retrospect seeks an essentially mechanical explanation free from any hint of intention or purpose—because where would the purpose come from? Purpose would introduce a mystery that science assumes is unwarranted.
Assuming that a separate conscious, willful, eternal entity is the cause of and reason for all we see and do makes the new mystery much bigger because it is totally invisible and unreachable (unlike the cosmos), and even more mysterious and opaque than the cosmos itself.
However, science typically does not inquire into where this vector toward complexity comes from and why different qualities emerge out of more complex configurations. Instead of addressing why a particular arrangement of chemicals in a particular “soup” brings forth life, science just observes and states that it does. The same is true for consciousness: it does seem to emerge from life at some point, although just why and even where it emerges are murky questions. Are amoebas conscious, or plants, or ants, or snakes, or apes? And then there is the self-reflecting consciousness of humans, which seems paired with an evolutionarily new linguistic ability. Did this, too, necessarily emerge simply because language gives social animals enormous facilities in cooperation, which in turn enables humans to out-compete other species?
The question of the emergence of something seemingly new out of something old lies at the heart of whether something besides purposeless and totally indifferent mechanisms are going on within the makeup of existence. In other words, is some kind of intelligence embedded in the very structure of existence itself that moves within the vectors of evolution to construct complexities, and even more, to bring about emergent qualities—including life and consciousness?
Religious thought uses the “argument from design” to affirm that there must be a super-intelligent designer (God) that is the cause of it all. The ultimate justification for “intelligent design” essentially rests on a belief that because the cosmos displays such great intelligence in its construction, there must be some super-intelligent constructor. Their “proof” is that the way existence is put together is so exact and precise, and human consciousness and biological organs (the eye) so complex, that they couldn’t happen on their own.
God is brought into the picture in different ways: Hard-line fundamentalists call it “God’s design.” Faith in God provides a mooring, certainty; the more fear and insecurity, the more people are seduced by and cling to (presumed) certainty. Those who take biblical pronouncements less literally—the modernizers who mix faith with reason, science, and democratic values—say that God created evolution as the mechanism for change and has a hand in how it goes. (He could intervene at any time.) This posits a transcendent (separately existing) intelligence (God) as a necessary or better explanation for temporal existence. The more sophisticated form of this position does not deny science; but it, too, assumes that God the creator is eternal, that he created people with some super-conscious purpose in mind, and he is somehow steering the course. (Few monotheists would make God temporal; for if God is not eternal, but finite, then where did God come from?)
But “God” merely moves the mystery of existence back a step. This living mystery—which modern investigators tend to concede is unknown in many domains, including its origin—then becomes something we’re told is caused by an unfathomable, invisible entity, which is an even greater mystery, for where did that entity come from and what is it? Assuming that a separate conscious, willful, eternal entity is the cause of and reason for all we see and do, not only adds an entirely new mystery to the picture, it makes the new mystery much bigger because it is totally invisible and unreachable (unlike the cosmos), and even more mysterious and opaque than the cosmos itself.
But what does this God want—to be worshiped or placated? Is God then the ultimate “ego trip”? Why did God design existence the way it is instead of some other way that results in less misery and cruelty? Why put so much pain and suffering in the mix? Is God a sadist, or are we instead left with “God moves in mysterious ways that mortals cannot fathom”? The presumption of “evil” is one of the biggest challenges to monotheism. The pat reason given for evil (that it allows humans the free will needed for God’s final judgment) is a paltry excuse. Surely a more benevolent God could have given “good” a bit more edge over “evil.”
Many people deeply, and we believe rightly, intuit that life and consciousness must stem from something more than arbitrary chance, randomness, and mechanical causality.
The transcendent God position typically implies that God displays the individuated will, intention, and preferences that humans do (on a far grander scale). But to say there seems to be some intelligence of some order in the makeup of things does not necessarily imply that a superhuman-like intelligence is the causal factor. Although the universe does display regularities and “laws” that fit each other in remarkable ways, a separate cause, or “designer,” is most unlikely.
A more sophisticated “intelligent design” worldview can have instead a super-conscious intelligence that emanates from the whole of existence and is immanent within it. This is a form of pantheism where the whole of existence is somehow super-conscious and willful in the design of its own creation. Here God is the whole of creation, with a consciousness that directs how it designs itself. Hegel and de Chardin, among others, said that existence has been designed to move toward a predetermined end (predetermined by either a pantheistic or transcendent super-consciousness). Any worldview that uses some conception of design usually implies that we humans are a predetermined product marching toward a predetermined (designed) end.
But the arguments from design are deeply flawed; they fail to account for the seeming arbitrariness, unfairness, pain, and cruelty that existence displays. Yet many people deeply, and we believe rightly, intuit that life and consciousness must stem from something more than arbitrary chance, randomness, and mechanical causality. They doubt that the evolutionary exactitudes that led to self-conscious life could be fortuitous or accidental. The lack of other alternatives to hard-line materialism has brought many (including seculars) to give different variations of “intelligent design” more credence than they deserve, which fuels the “God” side of the controversy.
Design in its essence implies meaning, and the different forms of intelligent design are different ways of bringing in aforethought meaning and purpose. They all come from traditional perspectives and placate fear by arguing that something wiser is in control. They can all stand against any onslaught from reason, because reason alone cannot penetrate the given beliefs through scientific proofs to the contrary.
A major difference between our point of view and those in the debate centers on the words “intelligent” and “design.” In calling something intelligent, it is generally assumed that somewhere a conscious awareness with some foresight and hindsight is cognizant of some of the forces at play that influence perceptions and outcomes. A design is a template for future manifestation. A design for a building constructs parameters about how the actualized building will look. So would a design for cars, humans, and for the structure of existence. Though the finished product could display some novelty outside the design, this involves the builders of the design going beyond the design itself. Still, following or being part of a design places deterministic constraints on the ultimate outcome. The nature of a design points to a future, to some kind of finished product held in mind. It is very difficult to posit a design for existence without also positing some kind of consciousness behind it (or within it).
But the intelligence proposed here does not contain conscious intention; what the conscious parts that come about via an evolutionary process will look like or do is open, unknown. Thus, there is no conscious design in regard to outcomes and how existence will manifest. There is only the push to construct unique and novel individuals and species that give existence an endless array of experiencing itself through its creations.
It is more likely that there is a momentum within existence to construct individuals that can consciously experience themselves, and to an extent the world around them. This is what brought us here.
The evolutionary stages of buildup and breakdown that create jumps where different qualities emerge, such as life, are part of a momentum toward self-reflection. With the arrival of life and the irreducible miracle of experiencing, evolution moved to its life-and-death dramas that operate in a field of competition/cooperation. Biological evolution displays emergent leaps in the complexity of interaction among its individual constructions. Social interactions increase complexity; and with human beings another leap in complexity and self-reflexivity occurred with language, abstraction, and curiosity that led to building tools and increasing our power to gain knowledge and comfort, and to create and destroy.
So we think it far more likely that existence has an impetus to generate complexities that can and do bring forth emergent and surprising qualities that broaden existence’s experience of itself. Novelty as part of an evolutionary vector (not a design; you cannot design novelty) explains better why there is violence within drama, why there is death (without which there would be no change), and why humans have continually pushed against the riddle of existence. It also explains better why each of us (or most of us) somewhere deep down believes that on occasion, the choices we make create something new and different than other choices would have brought about. Having a self-conscious entity capable of real choice makes possible, or at least accelerates, the capacity of existence to experience itself more deeply and in novel ways. But being “more likely” does not make any of this necessarily so.
We humans are what existence has come up with in this particular section of the cosmos. We are what existence constructs. If there is an inbuilt purpose to construct individuals that can experience something of the extraordinary majesty of the cosmos’s workings, then for this planet, at this time, humans are at the apex of that capacity. So in a very real way, we humans are examples of the meaning and purpose of existence. We are what the evolutionary process has brought forth. Whatever meaning or purpose each of us can tease out of our individual lives should take into account our participation in an evolutionary momentum containing severe but necessary challenges to either mature or leave the stage. This is where, in this particular epoch, meaning and purpose lie.
To say that humans are what existence constructs to experience itself does not mean we have been consciously designed to be the way we are, nor have we been designed for guaranteed success. If this were so, then novelty and real choice would be a charade (it could be argued that it is), and people would have no real choices in whether they can consciously participate in their own evolutionary momentum. There is no specific design or conscious designer: we argue that it is more likely that there is a momentum within existence to construct individuals that can consciously experience themselves, and to an extent the world around them. This is what brought us here.
One argument within complexity theory says, in brief, that the cosmos creates complexities through “laws.” And so in the fullness of time and the endless arrays of possibility, life was bound to happen, and with it experiencing, which eventually led to consciousness and then self-reflexivity. This argument, like scientific reductionism, is purely statistical, and also purely retrospective in its assumptions. One of these improvable assumptions (and an unscientific hope) is that given practically endless possibilities, something like human consciousness was sure to happen. This argument leaves out one major problem, which is that complexity alone has nothing within it that pushes toward consciousness; nor does it address why out of different levels of complexity different qualities and “laws” emerge at all, or where the laws came from. (The latter brings in teleology—a concept forbidden by science.)
Life seems to emerge from non-life, consciousness from non-consciousness, and human linguistic abstractive abilities are likewise really an extraordinary emergent phenomenon. Humans can build very complex machines that can simulate a great deal of human thought. But it took human thought and will to do this, and as of now, no machine has the capacity of experiencing in the way that living entities do. If we humans are ever able to create self-conscious experiencing life (which is unclear), it is only because we emerged from an evolutionary process that enabled us to do so.
Could experiencing (and with it consciousness) have emerged without some vector within the structure of existence for evolution to produce them? Certainly this is possible and arguable. But if consciousness just occurred without any purpose behind it, one would be hard-pressed to say that there is any purpose within life or consciousness. There also would be no reason to think they would ever occur again. For these and other reasons, we argue that the emergence of self-conscious, self-reflective life is not arbitrary. Those who argue against “the argument from design” do so by showing that having an external designer explains little and instead increases the mystery. We propose that there is a different and more likely way of giving purpose and meaning to the evolutionary process and to this particular evolutionary stage than “intelligent design,” “meaningless accidental occurrence plus laws,” or the “statistical likelihood” advocated by some complexity thinkers.
If we are conscious, consciousness exists; and if we display any intelligence at all, intelligence is a part of existence. So the intelligence that humans on occasion display did not come out of nowhere; rather, it is a manifestation of an intelligence that is within the construction of existence. This, of course, cannot be proved or disproved, but what is the alternative? That the regularities the cosmos displays just happen by multiple congruent lucky accidents? That human intelligence is a fortuitous (or not) quirk that magically appeared out of nowhere? Even if one were to say that intelligence evolved only because there is survival value in it, it has survival value only because there is intelligence within the makeup of existence. Human intelligence in some fashion mirrors, responds to, and can connect with aspects of existence that it is a part of. If the universe did not behave intelligently in its construction, what good would it be to be intelligent? So it is most likely that there is some kind of intelligence interwoven in the way existence creates itself. This is one of the pegs that our argument hangs its view of evolution upon.
Scientific worldviews that rigidly adhere to a strict methodology of what is “provable” by science assume evolution to be essentially meaningless, in that it has no agendas and operates out of the interface of laws and response to random or unpredictable events. In biological evolution, the bottom line is “survival of the fittest.” This is a circular definition—whatever survives “fits.” Here an uninvolved science considers the extraordinary emergence of different qualities of complexity—including a creature that can use language, have values, self-reflect, love, appreciate beauty, and utilize a capacity to think in abstractions that allow for science—to be merely the outcome of a mix of “laws” with randomness or chance.
So we view evolution as having “spirit” embedded in matter, moving it toward form, emergent complexity, life, and eventually self-reflecting experiencing.
“Emergentists” in cosmology do acknowledge that different laws emerge with different levels of complexity. How these emergent aspects appear is not really known, but since emergentists are mostly materialists, too, this is just taken as a given, as is electricity, which is not totally understood either. (It is assumed that eventually science will figure it out.) That a universe evolved that could eventually support life is taken for granted. But if any of the basic particles differed minutely in charge or size, this whole universe would not have formed at all. Science’s answer as to why it formed against such astronomical odds is: “It formed as it did, and that’s all that can be said—for now.”
Science dismisses all questions as “unscientific” that it deems not testable, falsifiable, or verifiable—with the unscientific hope that one day science will answer all the important questions. It is difficult for many (ourselves included), as well as many scientists when they take off their scientific hats, not to think there is some kind of intelligence somewhere in the makeup of existence. What makes it hard is seeing laws on the macro-level displaying an elegant simplicity, while at the quantum level individual particles are indeterminate, although when taken in large numbers, even quantum particles are so statistically predictable that the reliability of microchips in computers can be counted on.
The evolutionary process, as we see it, has momentum within it that leads to consciousness and then to self-reflexive intelligence. Although we take exception to the traditional meanings of spirit, we do call this underlying urge or vector “spirit” because it cannot be explained or described by the laws applying to matter. Also, however lacking, no other word captures what we are trying to express. So we view evolution as having “spirit” embedded in matter, moving it toward form, emergent complexity, life, and eventually self-reflecting experiencing.
We are broad-based evolutionists, meaning we think that everything is evolving, including the mechanisms of evolution itself. First the material of the universe evolved into galaxies, stars, and planets. When life emerged on this planet at least, the non-conscious mechanism of natural selection with its genetic underpinnings took over. There is no reason to think that the evolution of evolutionary mechanisms has stopped.
If we’re right, this is potentially good news. Evolving socially would involve a new evolutionary mechanism based on a shift and broadening of our awareness to enhance ways of relating and connecting, which could happen quickly, not over eons.
Our evolutionary advantage came through our large, communicative, emotional brain, which through our vastly enlarged cooperative and tool-making abilities put us on top of the chain. This included eventually separating ourselves off from the rest of the animal kingdom such that we thought of ourselves as different and superior, with the right to use the rest of the world as we pleased. The need to become aware of this and to think differently is what puts humanity on an evolutionary cusp, and in a sense a spiritual cusp, too, that challenges us either to evolve socially or vanish. Humanity is facing the need to be more conscious using the gifts and powers we have so as to continue on our evolutionary track. This must involve another leap in evolution into a more conscious involvement in the social sphere. We must care more about how we use each other and what is around us.
The neurology that underlies experiencing is so different from consciousness itself that no one really knows how the connection between them works. Is it a one-way street with matter creating mind (as hard-line materialists believe)? This makes mind a mere epiphenomenon totally reducible to brain processes. Or can consciousness (mind) in the forms of belief, will, intention, emotions, relationships, awareness, and meditation change the physiology and the direction that one’s life takes—making it a two-way street? This would mean the mind is not reducible to the brain’s physiology.
The need to become aware of this and to think differently is what puts humanity on an evolutionary cusp, and in a sense a spiritual cusp, too, that challenges us either to evolve socially or vanish.
We think the latter is more likely: that the evolutionary process that has produced existence, life, consciousness and experience, emotions, and our brain also produces conscious entities with will, intention, potentials for creativity, and an aesthetic that can appreciate, empathize with, and care for other constructions of existence. This means that nothing is written in stone and that existence is pushing for new ways to experience itself. This view seems to us more likely than a cold, indifferent universe in which life fortuitously sprang up, or that came upon life through the statistically remote mix of necessary chemicals and environmental factors. We suspect that most scientists of all persuasions are secretly convinced that they themselves are not totally determined “robots.”
We have not become outright optimists, for we cannot know which way things will go. Instead we call ourselves “possibilists,” meaning we believe that humanity has real possibilities and extraordinary untapped social potential. Of this we are certain: If people think and act as if we have a chance of becoming viable, then we might. If we don’t, then we surely won’t. Whether or not these views resonate with you, one thing is clear and absolute. Either human beings through will and intention have some say in the direction of the course of events, or we don’t. This commentary on evolution is predicated on the strong likelihood that we do.
Diana Alstad, a Yale Ph.D., taught the first Women’s Studies at Yale and Duke and is a founder of New Haven Women’s Liberation. Joel Kramer is the author of The Passionate Mind: A Manual for Living Creatively with One’s Self and co-author with Diana Alstad of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power exposing hidden mental and cultural authoritarianism. He did graduate work in philosophy and psychology. Their website is joeldiana.com.
This essay was adapted from “Intelligence Without Design” in their new book The Passionate Mind Revisited: Expanding Personal and Social Awareness (July 2009).
To contact Guernica or Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, please write here.
Photo by Hubble Space Telescope courtesy of NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)