How Chaos Theory Refutes the Blind Watchmaker of Richard Dawkins

I would like to briefly examine the claim, made by advocates of Neo-Darwinism and others, that advances in contemporary systems theory now give a rational explanation for the development of highly complex structures in the universe without recourse to the hypothesis of a Divine Creator.

Further, I will show that such claims, while purporting to be based on the evidence of empirical science, are, as certain postmodern philosophers of science have shown, metaphysical assertions. I will offer a few brief remarks on how advances in the mathematics of complex systems (illustrated by cybernetics and so-called chaos theory) actually can be reconciled with a theory of theistic evolution. Finally, I will discuss how the “critical realist” philosophy of the Canadian Jesuit cognitional theorist and theologian, Bernard J.F. Lonergan, offers a coherent response to the dogmatic scientism of the neo-Darwinists, on the one hand, and the simplistic “pseudo-science, relativism and nihilism” of postmodern philosophy on the other. You do not have to throw out the baby of logical coherence and rationality with the bath water (rightly critiqued by postmodern theorists) of metaphysical naturalism and scientism.

The Blind Watchmaker

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Many contemporary Christians, especially those without training in mathematics, the metatheory of logic or the philosophy of science, are under the impression that the teleological argument for the existence of God has been definitively refuted by new developments in cybernetic systems theory, fractal geometry and evolutionary biology. This refutation is symbolized, in popular culture, by the widely influential book, The Blind Watchmaker, written in 1986 by the British zoologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins purports, and is purported by many others, to have delivered an analytical coup de grâce to the classic “argument from design” as formulated, for example, by the 18th century theologian William Paley. Paley argued that, just as a watch is far too complex and functional to have simply sprung into existence by chance, and so provides indubitable evidence of the existence of an intelligent watchmaker, so, too, the universe’s far greater complexity and functionality are proof of purposeful design by a Divine Watchmaker.

Au contraire, says Dawkins. The complexity and apparent functionality of the universe only give the illusion of design and planning. In reality, the intricate complexity inherent in the universe’s systems is merely the result of blind, unconscious natural forces. “There may be good reasons for belief in God, but the argument from design is not one of them,” he writes.

“Despite all appearances to the contrary, there is no watchmaker in nature beyond the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Advanced Systems Theory and Evolution

Dawkins’s assertion, that random mutations alone explain what he calls “cumulative selection” – the gradual evolution of more and more complex biological structures – has seemingly been buttressed in recent years by rapid developments in systems theory, aided, of course, by the analytical tools used in creating new supercomputers . For our purposes, systems theory actually has two relevant components.

(1) Chaos theory, pioneered by such scientists as Edward Lorenz, is the scientific study of simple, nonlinear, dynamic systems that give the appearance of random activity but which are actually the result of simple deterministic forces. A practical example of chaos theory is fractal geometry and the study of snowflakes, which show how simple processes can give rise to apparently random variations of immense complexity.

(2) Cybernetics, developed by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann (d. 1957) and further developed by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine at the University of Brussels, is the scientific study of what are called “self-organizing systems.” Self-organizing systems are complex assemblies that generate simple emergent behaviors. Practical applications of self-organizing systems studies can be found in the study of cellular automata (self-reproducing systems), neural networks (artificial learning), genetic algorithms (evolution), artificial life (agent behavior), fractals (mathematical art) and physics (spin glasses).

Interestingly enough, systems theory is not really the stalwart alley that advocates of a blind, random universe believe it to be. And in fact, many Neo-Darwinist theoreticians now recognize this. The inability of Darwinist and Neo-Darwinist theories to convincingly explain the origin of life from non-life is part of the reason why “self-organizing systems” are among the hottest topics in the philosophy of science. Further, analysts who study self-organizing systems often insist that they resist reductionist explanations, indeed that the properties that emerge are not explicable from a purely reductionist viewpoint. This is why systems theory has been so enthusiastically embraced by advocates of process theology, because it provides for both a scientific study of the complex processes of nature and yet does not reject the existence of a Divine Intelligence that set these processes in motion in the first place.

In other words, systems theory, like any branch of science, can be viewed as merely the rigorous, mathematically-based description of actual processes that exist in nature. It describes precisely how these processes work themselves out in practice – simple forces giving rise to seemingly random, complex structures (chaos theory) and complex systems giving rise to simple behaviors (self-organizing systems). Neo-Darwinists want to pretend that these bare empirical descriptions alone constitute a rational explanation for the complexity of the universe, but of course that goes far beyond the scope of systems theory as an empirical, descriptive discipline.

The Philosophical Temptation

That is why, when all is said and done, Dawkins, like many scientists before him, can’t resist abandoning science for philosophy. The crux of Dawkins’ argument in favor of a blind, random universe is not, as he imagines, scientific analysis but a metaphysical assertion.

Dawkins’ rejection of theism is actually the old objection that recourse to an original “first cause” is essentially a circular argument. After hundreds of pages in which he attempts to show how the complex structures of nature are the result of natural selection and random mutation, he must, in the end, resort to a philosophical argument. “To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer,” he says. “You have to say something like, ‘God was always there,’ and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say, ‘DNA was always there,’ or ‘Life was always there,’ and be done with it.”

But Dawkins, like many scientists before him, is making a fundamental epistemological error here. The inability to explain one reality (e.g., God) does not, in and of itself, free one from the necessity of explaining other realities. If that were the case, then one should abandon science altogether. Advocates for the argument from design assert that it is illogical, and contrary to all observable phenomena, to assert that something can happen without a cause. That human beings cannot, at this stage, explain what caused God does not logically mean that we can rationally assert that things happen without a cause. If Dawkins can prove that a sophisticated robot factory exists that can produce, blindly, a perfectly made watch – and scientists and engineers can describe in detail the complex processes by which the robot factory produces these watches – that does not answer the obvious question of who or what made the robot factory. It merely begs the original question.

If anything, chaos theory and its related disciplines are only further strengthening this fundamental metaphysical axiom that all things must have a cause, showing how the apparent randomness of certain natural processes are not, in fact, random at all – but only appear to be random. Chaotic systems appear disorderly, perhaps random, but are not. Underneath their random behavior lies an order and a pattern that, with the aid of new supercomputers, can now be for the first time actually tracked mathematically. It was Lorenz’s discovery that, as his famous metaphor put it, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Ecuador may affect weather patterns in Alaska. The Alaskan weather patterns may appear random, and without cause, but that is only because of the inability of human minds to know all of the deterministic processes involved.

Theistic Evolution

Advocates of Neo-Darwinism and so-called creation science rarely agree on anything, but they are often united in their contempt for what is called theistic evolution. Dawkins asserts that any attempt to bring God into the scientific picture is “transparently feeble” because “science” can show how organized complexity arises spontaneously. As we have seen, science does no such thing: It merely describes the processes by which complex systems arise, without explaining what set these processes in motion in the first place. Creationists, for their part, object that theistic evolution is, in effect, incoherent, an ungodly pact with the devil in which Christians compromise their fundamental belief in divine providence. Typically, theistic evolution is described as evolution guided by God. But, creationists argue, this is a contradiction in terms: If it is evolution, then it is a theory of change in which natural processes are governed by random chance. If it is theistic, then change occurs through divine guidance.

But this presents a false dichotomy. As some of the early “fundamentalist” theoreticians saw (A.C. Dizon, Louis Meyer, R.A. Torrey), there is nothing inherently anti-theistic in a theory of Creation by which God created the universe using evolutionary processes. Christians have long accepted the notion, in physics and chemistry, that there exist observable, seemingly deterministic laws of nature. What is the essential difference between laws which govern atomic particles and, say, the complex DNA encoding by which a single cell develops into a newborn child?

Moreover, it is not even clear, from a logical standpoint, why a theistic worldview could not accommodate elements of randomness as part of the universe’s physical processes – why, contrary to Einstein’s famous assertion, God could not play dice.

Purpose, design and planning do not, in and of themselves, rule out an element of randomness. Indeed, randomness can be part of a design and purpose. College officials may plan and organize a football game – to be played according to fixed, unvarying rules – and yet require, as part of their plan, that the first kick-off be determined by a random flip of a coin. God, for His part, could conceivably create a universe in which randomness can and does occur – not least in the free choices of spiritual beings not entirely bound by deterministic forces. In other words, even if Quantum Theory (to take one example) is somehow able to prove the existence of irreducibly probabilistic laws – in which random events simply occur apparently without a cause – that could still be seen within the boundaries of natural laws established by a Divine Creator.

This is what the Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard J.F. Lonergan set out to show in his classic work Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. Lonergan thought through the implications of a shift from a classical to a statistical worldview, from a mechanistic cosmology to one in which universal order is constituted by emergent probability. Lonergan argued that a world process, governed by schemes of recurrence best described by the laws of probability, is still a world of design and purpose. Intelligence can both discern, and, ultimately, create, an underlying purpose in an aggregate of systems – a system of systems – that operate seemingly independently.

Systems theory and chaos theory have, in fact, proven Lonergan’s basic point: Systems are fundamentally “schemes of recurrence” that, while often appearing to be random, and which are best described by statistical probability, nevertheless exhibit patterns of cumulative complexity.

In the end, therefore, we begin where we started. Popularizing scientists such as Dawkins are justly proud of their new analytical tools. As a methodological starting point, science can and should proceed according to naturalistic presuppositions – lest every scientific mystery be explained away as “God does it.” The purpose of science is to describe the mechanisms discoverable in nature, to discern the patterns observable in what appears to be, to unaided human eyes, random or disorganized events. Chaos theory… and Ilya Prigogine’s self-organizing systems… have demonstrated just how unfathomably complex the processes of nature actually are.

But science, by its very nature, must recognize that its descriptive theories do not, ultimately, explain the origin of the universe. They only describe how the universe works, not how it came into existence or for what purpose. It is the task of the philosophy of religion, and systematic theology, to learn from new disciplines such as chaos theory and propose a new rational synthesis that takes into account the discoveries of these new disciplines and integrate them into classical Christian affirmations about creation. It is by no means clear that we live in a random universe, but if we do, Christian theology can show how the Creator can work His purposes through the “schemes of recurrence” of emergent probability just as He could under the old laws of classic Newtonian mechanics.

Relevance for Apologetics

Ultimately, Christian apologetics must face up to the intellectual challenges posed to it by the culture in which it is operating – and that culture, in the West at least, is dominated by increasingly sophisticated computer technologies and disciplines that call into question both the simple-minded determinism of 19th century modernist science and the “head in the sand” anti-science attitudes of postmodern “critics.” Young people, born with Nokia cell phones in their hands, and struggling with the challenges of mastering ever-more-complex technologies, know that postmodern philosophers are not serious when they deny the existence of objective facts.

Just as there are no atheists in fox holes, so, too, they are no sincere postmodern theoreticians in the cancer ward. When the postmodern theologian is sitting on the examination table, and her physician is explaining that she could have (a) a brain tumor requiring immediate surgery to save her life; or (b) a headache, requiring an aspirin, it’s a good bet that this postmodern theologian will NOT explain to the doctor that, in fact, she rejects the “foundationalist” premises of his science “practices,” that reality is really a social construct and that just because a tumor is “true for him,” it doesn’t follow that it is necessarily true for her. Instead, she will probably demand more tests – thus proving to everyone, including her students, that when push comes to shove she very much believes in objective reality over and above what she thinks about it. She even believes in absolute truth – because, if she takes an aspirin rather than undergoing surgery – and makes the WRONG choice – she will probably die. In her case, at least, the truth matters. Her life depends upon it.

In a similar way, a Christian apologetics that does not display at least as much conviction will not persuade anyone. That is why it is important that theologians today meet the challenges posed by contemporary science and not flee from them into a postmodern humanist ghetto. As I have attempted to argue in this paper, such flight is unnecessary. We have the intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by contemporary systems theory, evolutionary biology and quantum physics. We do not have to accept either a simplistic naturalism, advocated by proponents of neo-modernism, nor a simplistic postmodern relativism and skepticism. While critiquing the excesses of 19th century modernist science, we do not have throw out the baby of truth with the bath water of scientism and naturalism.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).

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