“All-praise to the unity of God, and all-honor to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things“
May 27, 2012. According to the Baha’i teachings – and the world’s great monotheistic religions – God created the universe and everything in it, including us.
Since the Enlightenment, many have said that science tells a different story.
The universe and “us”, they say, evolved. What we see around us, and indeed, our very own existence, was not preordained. Rather, we came into being through natural processes that first created the minerals necessary for our existence, and then created planets with the warmth and atmosphere to support life. Additional processes caused living matter to come into being, and other processes brought about a proliferation of lifeforms and eventually our existence.
It didn’t necessarily have to turn out this way. We – our intelligence, our societies, the things we love – could just as well not have been. There was no creator.
Now, ignoring the “not preordained” part, it is hard to see how these two stories disagree. Line up the Biblical Genesis account side-by-side with the modern scientific account and they simply look like two different tellings of the same story.
So why the conflict? Why the rancor and distrust?
This – it seems – is where the “not preordained” part comes in. The idea that we were created by God, according to the anti-religious camp, does not jibe with the observed facts of the matter. What we see from scientific studies is process of slow and gradual growth whereby things evolve in a chance-like and random way. This means that there are no pre-existing divinely-instituted entities and we cannot say that God created the reality we see arrayed in front of us. We came into being by an accidental growth process, rather than by a Genesis moment of creation.
At least this is how many biologists see things. Others – including many physicists – see things differently.
The Building Blocks of Nature
Physicists – who study more fundamental processes – typically have a different perspective. They think in terms of things like states, structures, systems, and in terms of concepts like stability, symmetry, coherence, and complexity.
Physicists ask about the possibility and stability of various physical configurations. What configurations are allowed by the laws of nature? What aren’t? What are the natural processes that allow those configurations to come to be?
Often, physicists think in terms of building blocks of nature. The building blocks of atoms, for example, are electrons, protons, and neutrons, each of which, in turn, has its own building blocks. The building blocks of heredity, for example, are genes. James D. Watson and Francis Crick credit the physicist Erwin Schrödinger and his 1944 book “What is Life” for this concept and for inspiring their search for structure of DNA.
The building block perspective leads to a picture of how things come to be that has ladder-like features. Building blocks for one rung of the ladder of creation have to come into existence before the next rung can be created.
After its initial expansion from a singularity, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons. While protons and neutrons combined to form the first atomic nuclei only a few minutes after the Big Bang, it would take thousands of years for electrons to combine with them and create electrically neutral atoms.
The first element produced was hydrogen, along with traces of helium and lithium. Giant clouds of these primordial elements would coalesce through gravity to form stars and galaxies, and the heavier elements would be synthesized either within stars or during supernovae.
Next, planets were formed out of protoplanetary discs made from the debris of stars and galaxies, some planets emerging at the right distances from the sun to support environments favorable to abiogenesis – process that lead to the emergence of amino acids that are the building-blocks of life, and to the emergence of RNA, DNA and cells, the building-blocks of heredity and living organisms.
Only then does evolution as Darwin describes it come into play. To a physicist, it is a continuation up the rungs of the ladder of increasing complexity, a process that started with the creation of the first subatomic particles.
All of this is a process where something has to be created – a basic building block of nature – before the whole scheme can advance the next step further.
The Role of Randomness
Randomness plays a role in all the transitions from one rung of the ladder to the next. In each case where stable particles, atoms, heavier atomic elements, molecules, chemicals, and cells come into being, the transition to the next higher levels involves randomness.
The role that randomness plays can be described in two major ways. One way is the generation of outlier phenomena – events with extremely low probability but which happen none-the-less. Examples are extremely rare but highly energetic or influential events such as the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan or the confluence of events that led to the recent global economic meltdown. The big bang originating the universe is another.
But more generally, randomness acts as driving mechanism to create change and to increase complexity – and includes outlier phenomena as a special case. It does this through the huge diversity of arrangement of events that it causes.
It is as if the universe were carrying out simultaneously billions and billions of experiments continually for long periods of time. As a result of these “random process experiments”, every possible combination of parameters is tried out. Occasionally something new is created. And occasionally, new building blocks are created.
Consider the emergence of the first cells of life on earth. Once planets were created that allowed the possibility of life, then the universe, operating through the laws of nature, with the absolutely essential help of randomness, tried all possible parameters again and again until not only a successful self-replicating cell was created, but also an environmental niche capability of supporting that self-replicating cell.
The perspective of physics, then, is to see the laws of nature as having a built-in potential for structure. Chance and randomness, combined with the deterministic large scale physical laws like gravity, electricity and magnetism, etc. are the ways of accessing that structure, of converting potentiality into actuality.
Randomness in this picture is not the accidental properties or purposelessness of ordinary everyday description.
Yes, We Are Preordained: Potentiality and Actuality.
Central to the physicist’s perspectives I describe above is a conception of nature and natural laws underlying the universe that is central to the modern concept of science: everything that can possibly be realized is built into the laws of nature.
If something doesn’t exist now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t happen in the future. The question is whether or not the laws of nature allow it to happen in the future or not. And the corollary question – very relevant to way the universe is structured – is whether a phenomena is stable or not, i.e., whether once it is brought into existence, it will continue to exist.
There are some things that don’t exist at a certain time that potentially exist. The laws of nature allow for their possibility. Immediately after the big bang, cells were only potentially real, not actually real. What make things real are the dynamical processes of growth and development that push potentiality into actuality. Essential to this process, we have explained above, is randomness.
So are we preordained? Is the existence of human beings – defined as living beings with the intelligence that we have – preordained? Yes, if we consider the universe to be built on the laws of nature. At all times, we were either potentially here or actuality here. We are a built-in feature, as it were, of the laws of nature. We know this because we exist, proving that the laws of nature allow us. Before we actually existed, we potentially existed.
Were we created by God? If you consider God to be responsible for the laws of nature, yes. The laws of nature, again, allow for the existence of humans. If God created the laws of nature, then logically it follows that God created us.
And we can say that randomness is a centrally important aspect of God’s dynamical mechanisms for turned potentiality into actuality. Randomness is a driver of growth and progress. It is not even in the slightest way evidence against God.
Next week, I will continue to discuss how physicists see random processes in complex system driving the phenomena of emergence – and how this is consistent with thinking about ideas of divine creation from the world’s great religions.
This is the 16th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.