Panpsychism


I have commented before on my willingness to accept the general facts of biological evolution. I am a theistic evolutionist, and have written quite a bit about “creationism” and how I think it does a disservice to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Although I’ve defended the “evolution” part of theistic evolution, I think perhaps I should now devote a bit of time to defending the “theistic” part of the set. Why do I think we need theistic evolution? Isn’t plain old evolution through natural selection enough to explain the facts?

No, I don’t think it is.

It’s quite true that given reproduction, variation, and the survival of the fittest, evolution can make a convincing case on how biological change over time can and has occurred. It can even do a reasonable job of explaining many seemingly “irreducibly complex” biological systems. But note what we just said… GIVEN reproduction, variation, and survival. That’s a lot to give. Evolution presupposes a set of laws operating on an already complete, self-organizing functional system that reproduces, seeks to survive, and produces (and reproduces) variations. And even the simplest such functional system imaginable is mind-boggling in complexity.

Biologists, in discussions of evolution, usually partition the question of the actual ORIGIN of functional life into an entirely separate question of “abiogenesis”. And while enthusiasts hint that breakthroughs have occurred or are immanent that will put abiogenesis on the same footing with evolution, I don’t see it. I have followed the topic with enthusiasm for decades. There are dozens of competing theories of abiogenesis, and almost no real progress on any real explanation of the origin of life. The various theories are obviously no more than very general outlines who’s details don’t look to be supplied any time soon.

I now confess to deciding to comment on this topic after reading an interesting essay called “Thinking Matter” by James Barham. To quote him:

Darwinians often complain that such criticisms are based on a misunderstanding. It is not chance, they say, that bears the explanatory weight in their theory, it is the selection principle. Natural selection is said to act as a ratchet, locking into place the functional gains that are made, so that each new trait can be viewed as a small incremental step with an acceptable probability. But what Darwinians forget is that the way a ratchet increases probabilities and imposes directionality is through its own structure. In the present context, the structure of the ratchet is simply the functional organization of life. Darwinians are only entitled to claim that the explanatory burden of their theory lies on the selection “ratchet,” thus avoiding the combinatorial explosion problem, provided that they also acknowledge that the structure of this ratchet consists precisely in the intrinsic functional correlations among the parts of the organism. But now they have merely assumed the very functional organization that they claimed to be able to explain, thus sneaking teleology in by the back door.

Evolution works so well, in other words, because it pushes all the really interesting cosmological questions back into the abiogenesis arena. We are encouraged to have faith that great progress will be made, and not to fall into the “God of the gaps” theory that took such a pummeling with biological evolution. But it seems to me, at least, that the problems with abiogenesis are of an entirely different order of magnitude.

Is the only solution an Intelligent Designer? Not necessarily. I believe that a promising line of philosophy in this regard is panpsychism. Briefly, this is the idea that natural intelligence, including such things as choice, purpose and striving, are an intrinsic part of matter itself, down to the subatomic level. Under this principle, matter tends to organize itself into life by its very nature.

This coincides with the mystic view that God is the root reality of all things. Seen from a mystical perspective, this self-organizing property of matter is the result of the many fragments of God consciousness striving to return to unity. God doesn’t create life, or design life. God IS life, bubbling up to consciousness through the matrix of matter.

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