If you've raised children during the past 30 years or so, you've probably watched Sesame Street with them from time to time (now that ours are grown, I miss all those snippets I used to catch, but can't quite bring myself to tune in . . . at least not while anyone is looking ;-)). One of my favorite songs by their muppets was "You're Alive."
- see http://members.tripod.com/Tiny_Dancer/alive2.html
And a clock's not alive (no, no, no, no)
. . .
But then again,
A frog is alive (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
A dog is alive (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
. . .
They breathe and eat and grow.
And that is how you know...
That some things are alive and others are not is one of the most basic distinctions we make among created things from a very early age. Later, we make even more distinctions among living and non-living things. This session takes up reflects on levels of creation from a metaphysical perspective.
In our previous session, we reflected on the meaning of creation as "spoken" by God. Note as you read Scripture from now on how often this theme shows up. It begins in Genesis 1: 3 where God says, "'Let there be light,' and there was light." Genesis 1 then goes on to recount God articulating other realities: sky, oceans, land, plants, animals, then human beings. I'm not suggesting any kind of scientific accounting of things at work, here, but there does seem to be a metaphysical intuition that moves from the simpler realities to the more complex, with God speaking the simpler first, then the more complex later. There's even a recognition of how the simpler are foundational for the more complex -- e.g., humans being forms from the dust of the Earth (Gen. 2: 7).
It's much the same with human communication and speaking. We, too, begin with simple words and ideas, which form the building blocks for larger ideas and eventually abstract concepts. Indeed, nothing exists in the mind that did not first somehow stimulate the senses, and there are only five of those. So taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound are foundational for mental life, which notes the relationships among them and draws analogies ultimately based on them when exercising higher thinking. We begin with the simple and move to the complex.
The same holds when we learn to write. First we learn our letters and their sounds, then how to put them into words (some seem to reverse this process), then how to put the words together into sentences which express ideas. Without the building blocks of letters or some kind of symbols, we could not express higher ideas in written language.
We know from science how atoms form molecules, which become the basis for cells, which make up tissues and so forth. You might say that these are all ideas of God taking expression, using the atomic building blocks that he whispered into existence with the Big Bang some 20 billion years or so ago, infusing them with capacities for interacting and forming an astounding array of other creatures. It's as though atoms are, metaphysically, a kind of alphabet (or musical scale, if you prefer) out of which words, sentences, and profound ideas of all kinds can be expressed.
Levels of Creation
What the various sciences can describe, we can affirm metaphysically in terms of syllables or musical notes that assume greater complexity when pieced together in certain ways. Let's briefly list these levels of arrangement in terms of the sciences that study them.
I. Material level
The physical dimension of reality, manifesting in space and time.
B. Chemical/molecular. Ex. Chemistry. Sciences like astronomy and geology are also concerned with this level.
II. Biological Level.
Certain complex arrangements of molecules demonstrate the ability to reproduce themselves, adjust to their environment, and grow.
D. Plants. Ex. Botany
E. Animals. Ex. Zoology
III. Spirit Level
This pertains to living forms that are in conscious possession of their intelligence and freedom.
G. Angels. Theology.
And now, a few generalizations about the interactions of these levels.
2. The lower levels must be developed to a certain threshold of complexity before the higher can manifest. E.g., you need complex molecules for cells; complex organisms for spiritual consciousness.
3. Although built upon lower levels, a higher level is not simply the sum of the lower. E.g., hydrogen and oxygen make up water, which is not simply an admixture of these two gasses. Water is something entirely new, with properties that could not be predicted through the study of hydrogen and oxygen.
4. Each level therefore operates according to its own realm of lawfulness, as do interactions between creatures from different levels. It's fairly easy to describe this lawfulness at the atomic and chemical levels, but much more difficult to predict interactions between living things and spiritual beings.
At this point, I will introduce a concept called holism, which, in opposition to reductionism, proposes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Water molecules are indeed a new reality -- more than simply the sum of hydrogen and oxygen. Same goes for living cells; you could try all day to mix the molecules of a cell together and you would not get life. A cell requires complex molecules, but also orders their interaction according to its own level of intelligence and lawfulness.
What the different levels of reality in light of holism suggest is what some writers have called an emergent view of the universe -- that, as noted in point #2, the higher levels emerge from the lower when sufficient complexity is reached. If this is the case, then it seems that the divine notes or syllables are somehow intrinsically ordered unto emergence. . . up to a point, at least.
God in an Emergent Universe
What would it mean, then, if emergence is somehow built in to the very structure of the universe? In terms of our metaphor of atoms as notes, we could say that these notes were "sung" to form melodies and harmonies (molecules) which join up with other melodies and harmonies to form higher, more complex expressions (cells). These, in turn, would be vibrating in such a manner as to attract other, harmonious cells, eventually leading to higher forms of reality. Science studies these chords, melodies and harmonies and provides a fine description of what they are and how they interact. But science does not really know why water is like it is, or why cells and life are as they are, or why human beings are spiritually conscious (our genetic makeup is very, very similar to chimpanzees). Science doesn't know why emergence takes place and cannot predict emergent realities.
So where does God fit into all of this? It almost sounds like once God creates the universe, the universe goes on creating itself through emergent dynamics, which would be a deistic perspective, of sorts..
Well, the first thing we can say is that God, being God (omnipotent, omniscient, etc.), had in mind from the first a goal for the universe and created the universe so that it could bring about that end. In other words, this isn't just any old kind of universe, but one that is capable of realizing the end for which God destined it. God didn't think about creating humans on the 6th day in Genesis; that's when God "spoke" us into existence. So it's not as though God, on the first day, created light, then wondered what he might do with it, then continued with the creation, bumbling along each step of the way to see what might be possible. Light, sky, oceans, plants, animals: all these were created with humans in mind. God had the end in mind in the beginning, and created a universe that could give expression to it. The atomic notes, molecular chords, cellular harmonies, etc. give rise to an astounding array of living and non-living creatures in their movement to express the human and are, in fact, part of our universe family; they are also gifts from God, placed at our disposal to use responsibly.
Continuing to counter deism, we also note how Scripture affirms again and again that God is personally invested in these words/creatures/beings He has spoken into existence. In fact, I don't think it's not going too far out on a limb, here, to say that the kind of creation God made was one that He could have a relationship with. The creatures spoken into existence by God are truly different beings, which means they are somehow "other" (from God's point of view) and, hence, as kind of "thou" in relation to God's "I AM." This sets up the possibility of genuine relationship, especially between creatures on the spiritual level of existence and God. It's as though the relational, Trinitarian God wanted to share the super-abundance of its Love and so created a universe of other beings who could receive and enjoy this love. That's a very traditional idea, and one that goes far beyond a deistic perspective; it's at the heart of the Judeo-Christian idea of covenant.
These are two ways, then, in which God can be understood to be involved in an emergent universe: first, by creating a universe capable of emergence and, secondly, by becoming relationally involved with the creation itself. The first way affirms a kind of presence of God at the heart of creation -- that there remains a fundamental bond between the Speaker and the word. Thus might a creature know its connection to God as Creator, and know God indirectly through the fact of its existence. The second way is a recognition of God as Other or beyond/transcendent to creation and, hence, One with Whom we can enter into relationship if it so pleases God (which, of course, we believe it does). These two ways resonate with traditional Christian insights and recognize that creation, in its relationship with the divine, can be influenced to act one way or another with consequences ensuing to other creatures.
A Case for Divine Intervention?
Through the ages, many philosophers and theologians have pointed out a third way that God interacts with creation, and that is the divine speaking a new, non-material word into the creation to infuse it with new organizational possibilities. Two such examples come to mind -- one with regard to the emergence of life from inanimate matter (level II from I), and another for the emergence of human spiritual consciousness (level III from II). In both examples, a certain degree of complexity in the lower level of reality is assumed to have first taken place -- in molecules or the human body, as the case may be.
There are strong arguments on both sides of this "vitalist" position. Those in favor tend to assume that the emergent reality is of such a higher and qualitatively different character that it could not have been derived from a lower level. For example, it's one thing to say that a water molecule is a new reality -- one that could not be predicted even knowing all there was to know about hydrogen and oxygen. Still, it is only a molecule, like hydrogen and oxygen are, and it is not alive. It cannot move or propagate itself like even the simplest of living organisms are capable of doing. Neither can very complex molecules like amino acids. And so, the argument goes, God must speak a new word -- a word of life -- to enable complex molecules to be organized into living cells. Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle, here) called this word a "vegetable soul," which enabled the development of cellular and physiological life. Additionally, it was proposed that an "animal soul" was also created by God to form animal life and its more advanced intelligence and responsiveness. Within the realm of vegetable and animal souls, many kinds of life forms proliferated (and I see no reason why the theory of evolution could not be used to explain this diversification), including the line that gave rise to human beings. The special creation of the human spiritual soul was considered necessary, however, to account for human spiritual consciousness, which, it was supposed, could not have possibly emerged from animal life. I find it especially interesting that the Book of Genesis has God speaking these three new words as well, on the 3rd, 5th and 6th days, respectively. Again we see evidence of a deep metaphysical intuition at work in the creation story.
There are very few scientists today who accept the vitalist notions of a vegetable, animal and the human spiritual soul described above, however. Most base their arguments on the fact that we never find life apart from matter, and so it is impossible to isolate the three vitalist principles of life. As the wikipedia.com article on vitalism notes, "the development of biochemistry and molecular biology elucidated metabolic pathways, genetic-information handling, etc. in great detail, with not a trace of 'vital force' to be found. What makes living things alive was shown to be a matter of organization, not some special substance." While this is true, it begs the question of how this "matter of organization" came about in the first place? It also assumes that vital principles of life could somehow be detected by scientists apart from matter -- as some kind of energy or "pure life." This was not the understanding of Aristotle nor Thomas Aquinas, however, who viewed the vegetable, animal and human spiritual soul as immaterial forms (or "words," if you prefer) that enabled higher organization of lower levels. In some ways, then, the modern arguments against the traditional teaching constitute a kind of straw man fallacy.
Another way to look at things, here, would be to recognize that these new words of life need not be understood in old vitalist terminology, nor construed as something God as "added" to the universe through a special intervention. Instead, it could be that these words of life were spoken with the creation-- not as properties of matter, but as a kind of non-energetic form or underlying pattern to come into play when sufficient complexity was reached. That's more or less the idea behind Sheldrake's concept of morphogenetic fields (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morphogenetic_field ). Check it out, if you're interested.
I'll stop here, as I'm already a bit long, but I wanted you to give you an idea of how people have imaged these levels of reality. There's no one correct way to think of this, of course, but some are more congruent with a Judeo-Christian perspective than others. If you like thinking about these kinds of topics, you might enjoy Jim Arraj's fantasy on how and why God made different levels of creation.
Questions and Discussion
1. What questions, comments or sharing do you have after reading this presentation?
2. How does the manner in which you image levels of reality influence your relationship with other people . . . the creation . . . God?
I like the last idea, that "these words of life were spoken with the creation-- not as properties of matter, but as a kind of non-energetic form or underlying pattern to come into play when sufficient complexity was reached." This seems, again, to fit with my experience of being a creative writer. There is an energy flowing through the act of creation (whether we're writers, artists, musicians or whatever) that is both integrally bound up with who we are (our work is always an expression of ourselves), while also being beyond us -- giving voice to something far greater than us or our puny lives.
This even goes beyond the "life energy" that exists, say, in a seed. As miraculous as it can be to contemplate whatever it is in a tiny seed that enables it to grow into something far greater and bigger and more complex than itself (a tree, a vegetable, even a human being), it still is fairly predictable what will come of it -- a brocolli seed becomes a green bushy plant about the size of a small football which tastes delightful in a quiche or next to slab of medium rare beef.
Yet the "Word" seems less predictable -- again, more like the impredictability of our creative acts (writing stories, painting pictures, etc). It seems to have more to do with imagination. After all, "creation was made in the 'image' (read 'imagination') of God"... aka the "words of life that were spoken with the creation".
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