From dust to consciousness - design or chance?
By Ben Swift
July 5 2018Is humanity and human consciousness a creation, or is it the product of blind chance? Andrew Wood (pictured), Professor of Biophysics at Swinburne University and a Christian, discusses this question in conversation with Ben Swift.
The question of what it means to be human is one surely asked by anyone who reflects on the deeper things of life. The quest for an answer to that question continues to drive a wedge between those who see humanity merely as the pinnacle of an evolutionary process and those who say that we are much more than the product of blind evolution.
Genesis 1:26, whilst not a scientific text, clearly illuminates the special creative intentions that God has for human beings, explaining why we are the way we are:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”
Theologian Neil McKinlay puts it this way, saying that God:
gave his own reflection five senses to appreciate his beautiful creation. And with his own finger he delicately wrote his law of love on his little mirror [Adam] as he breathed life into him. As the three persons love the eternal Godhead, so [humanity] was to image [the] Creator by loving God and neighbour personally, perfectly and perpetually.
There are many voices trying to flag our attention, hoping to convince us that they have the keys to the vault holding the truth about who we are – thoughts from humanists, philosophers and religious teachers among others.
Andrew Wood is a Professor of Biophysics at Swinburne University who wrestles with what quantum physics might have to say on this topic. I recently interviewed Andrew at the Conference on Science and Christianity in Brisbane, run by ISCAST – Christians in Science and Technology.
Ben Swift: How important do you see our understanding of human consciousness in terms of understanding humanity as a creation rather than a product of chance?
Andrew Wood: This is quite a difficult question as consciousness is one of those things that emerges from other things. The view I have of the way that creation has happened from the beginning is that at each stage new and remarkable things have emerged from the stage before. Planets and solar systems emerged from primordial gasses and they in turn emerged from products of the Big Bang. Life emerged from non-life, and animal consciousness emerged leading to human consciousness which had a different level to it, involving highly developed ability of speech, communication – including the communication of ideas – creativity and eventually a belief in the supernatural, specifically in a creator God. So, all of these things emerged.
BS: Do you personally see that human consciousness – our ability to reflect and ask questions – is what sets us apart as far as being created in the image of God?
AW: It is. And the question really is whether you could explain it by postulating that these emergent stages were random, occurring by chance, or there was some element of planning in them. I guess what I believe is that the properties that even elementary particles have are such that there’s a certain amount of inevitability as to what’s going to happen next. But there’s also a certain amount of surprise and unpredictability. So, I think there is both a random element to the way things evolve and an element of it all being programmed from the start. So, if you ask whether God planned everything to be exactly as it is today, it’s a very difficult question to answer – especially if one believes that Christ came to earth to redeem humanity from sin that entered the world at a specific time in history.
BS: If we are considering the origin of humanity in relation to the fall and our need for Christ as saviour, it certainly does become a difficult question to answer. Perhaps this stems from the tensions that occur between some Christian views of the origin of humanity and the scientific view of evolution? What types of questions arise when science and theology cross paths in this area?
AW: One philosophical question… if humanity had evolved differently, exhibiting an alternative bodily form to that of the homo sapiens, could Christ have entered the world in that alternative form to carry out his mission of salvation?... Other people postulate multiple universes and that sort of thing but often they do this in order to get around what looks like the inevitability of the God question. We live in a world that has elements of destruction and decay built in, human tragedy, natural disaster and so on, but nevertheless there is also a world full of beauty and we appreciate so many good things of life. Of course, for Christian people, we have a view that what we know now is not all there is. There is an immense eternity in a new creation ahead of us.
BS: Can you explain how quantum physics can help with our understanding of what has often been left to the realm of mystery?
AW: It extends our sense of reality to include pattern as well as matter. This is the “it from bit” that John Archibald Wheeler mentions relating to the idea that wave mechanics is really all about information rather than hard particles and so on. I think miracles and divine action are still quite hard problems and there are no slick answers. Certainly, miracles are God’s signposts to bigger theological truths and divine action is no more easily explained by quantum mechanics than the mind is. The mind is also a great mystery. It’s the secular scientists that evoke quantum mechanics as an explanation for it being of different character to the rest of reality. So, any attempts to reconcile… to bring quantum mechanics in to help understand miracles, are still in the realms of speculation.
BS: Alister McGrath, in his book Inventing the Universe, suggests that “The best picture of reality is that which weaves together coherently the greatest number of explanatory threads.” Do you see your work as a scientist as a thread that helps to explain reality?
AW: Certainly, science is a thread but it’s not the whole story. In particular, science doesn’t really have a great deal to say about people’s inner life, their creativity, arts such as poetry and music, aesthetics and logic. So, the best picture does need to bring in all the strands which include theological understandings of existence rather than just a scientific picture.
BS: There are many people who feel that science and religion remain at odds with each other. The suggestion of scientific understanding enriching religion is often regarded as nonsense or faulty reasoning. Can you describe your experience as a Christian scientist in arguing the opposite to be true?
AW: In terms of my own experience it’s something that I guess I’ve not done often and would like to do more of. Certainly, if one contemplates the beauty or the sophistication of some of life’s solutions, the way the body works and the way biological systems operate, some of the really cunning ways that physiological systems operate… if one has a Christian basis to life, one sees that as being something that a benevolent and gracious God is part of. Some like to think about science as having a redemptive function because it’s able to make better lives for people, therefore being part of one’s mission to glorify God while helping the lives of fellow humans and creatures in general.
BS: Theologian Karl Barth, when asked to sum up his extensive life’s work in a nutshell, said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Have you got a nutshell summary of what you think is most important in light of your personal discoveries?
AW: It’s really hard but the thing that sprung to mind is, “God is one and God is Three, I know that Jesus died for me”. But I’m very impressed by someone of Karl Barth’s stature to feel that a children’s hymn is the best way to express his thoughts.
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As Professor Wood suggests, science can teach us many useful and interesting things but it has its limits. As humans, we are surely more than complex cellular organisms, and not everything about us can be tested and measured scientifically. Faith by its very definition points to this reality.
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