FEATURED COLUMNIST: Fred Dennehy

Fred Dennehy

CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT CHANGE

"Nothing will come of nothing" - King Lear

Contemporary explanations of the origin of the universe, or the origin of human life, or the origin of language tend to take the same form -- see where things stand today, identify the protocols (of physics, or biology or linguistics) and run the program backward until you get to "start". Experts may argue about the details, but never about the fundamental method. Extrapolate. Any other way to explain change is -- literally -- unthinkable.

To talk about origins is to talk about becoming, and the problem of explaining becoming has given thinkers fits since the Greeks tried it in the sixth century B.C.E. We can think 'is', but we can't think 'becomes'. As a consequence, our representation of becoming tends to be a rapid sequence of stills-- a trick of the mind, like an old-fashioned animation contrivance. There is always something missing. The recognition (on some level) of that absence calls into play all kinds of cerebral gymnastics. Something has to be brought in from the outside like a last minute stage device to rescue the story. So, for instance, we have the "cross-modal device" invoked in developmental linguistics to account for metaphor, the "singularity" in cosmology to explain the "big bang," and "chance" in evolutionary biology to justify the appearance of new organisms. These devices tend to be conversation stoppers; their nature and function is to be unthinkable. As hypotheses, they are examples of precisely the kind of predicament from which the hypothesis was designed to rescue us. They are instances of what Owen Barfield calls the "null hypothesis".

The problem is particularly conspicuous in the life sciences, where the theory that species of life have evolved over long periods of time through a process of natural selection has held front stage since the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1859, Charles Darwin posited that infinitesimal changes accumulate in organisms over aeons, and those changes that best "fit" an organism to survive the competition account for major changes in living things. In more recent times, Darwin's successors have enlisted genetics as the mechanism behind evolution. They argue that a process of chance mutation and recombination creates new "meaning" in DNA. Differently "significant" DNA produces different physical characteristics in organisms, and those organisms with characteristics best adapted to the conditions of their environment are the ones that prevail.

The notion of chance is very accommodating as an explanation. It fits almost any set of facts and allows for any number of alternatives. Because evolutionary theory, for example, is based on random mutations over a long, long time, it is dependent upon a staggering number of variables. If you reran the program from scratch, you would not get the same result. Other events would surely occur to alter the original sequence, and something different from the present state of the organic world would be the "chance" result. It follows,then, from Darwinism, that humanity is entirely contingent. But contingent upon what? Unpredictability? Does the inability to explain something count as an explanation?
Darwinism by now is in our blood -- a part of the way we understand the world. Its founder was a genius; its contemporary explicators are careful, systematic thinkers. The invocation of "chance" to close the causal sequence may seem a small price to pay for the magnificent prehistorical pageant we get in return. But when the question moves from "what" happened to 'how' or 'why' it happened, the Darwinists are no better off than the sixth century Greeks. The riddle of 'becoming' is still unsolved, and for biologists the task that remains is how to present a genuine 'evolution' as opposed to a series of substitutions.

It is problematic that evolutionary biology cannot be tested with predictions like an experimental science. But what is really disturbing is the vast distance that has to be traveled from, say, an hypothesized paleozoic trilobite to the consciousness of the person looking at its fossil. There is a powerful sense that you simply can't get here from there -- not, at any rate, without the help of assumptions as arbitrary in their own way as that of the six day creation six thousand years ago which Darwinism replaced.

How, even given billions of years, can we account for the emergence from lifelessness of the subtle and marvelous understanding of the world today? This is an old objection, to be sure, recalling William Paley's "watchmaker" argument made 200 years ago for the existence of God. (If you saw a stone lying on the ground, you might say it had been there forever, but if you saw a watch lying on the ground, you couldn't help but ask who made it.) It is one thing if you view change from simplicity to complexity as linear, i.e., as a difference of degree. But if you see that the very existence of a question (and a questioner) implies a dimensional difference, there is no ready answer.

The picture is a bit like a dog biting its own tail. The Darwinists are trying to convince us of the truth of a theory (Darwinism), which by its own terms has been generated from a brain that evolved over a series of random variations from the primal slime. How can we trust a theory that oozed up by accident? And they are trying to account for a present state of affairs with an "inside" (consciousness, thinking, reason) from a preceding condition that is all "outside." Even chance, that storehouse of all possible determinisms operating through infinitesimal accretions, cannot turn the world inside out.

Seen in another way, there is an element in Darwinism that is not fit to survive. It is the axiom (rarely expressed) that, while a species or a genotype may change over time, the laws we observe controlling change may not themselves change. It is the embedded assumption that transformation has always happened exclusively as a result of the kind of physical causes we are apt to pay attention to today -- that is, causes that work on the organism and its constituents in a fixed way from the outside.

Why? Why should even purely physical behavior as we observe it today (such as, for instance, the rate of radioactive decay) be regarded as invariable? Where life itself is concerned, how can abstract principles that are by definition "finished" show us how or why something becomes something else? The irreducible element in Darwinism is random variation or mutation-- chance. But what is the appeal to chance, if not a reflex that stops thinking in its tracks, that excludes the possibility of another kind of transformation -- transformation from the inside? If transformation is imagined as active rather than passive, as living rather than finished, then change will be seen as taking place according to a different kind of law, a law that recognizes that the "inside" of our world did not somehow suddenly appear out of an exclusively "outside" past, but was present all along. If this is so, the different kind of law is a law of self-transformation.

To work with such a law will demand some form of participation of the knower in the known and, beyond that, the acceptance -- not easy in today's climate -- that the "inside" of the world as it is now can shed light on its past. The sequence of physical organisms that science has discerned in the fossil record may or may not be correct. But the explanation of how any such "outside" sequence came to be will have to involve a far-reaching understanding of what the "inside" of the world is.. Without a change of that order of magnitude in our explanation of change, the stories we are told about once upon a time will sound more and more hollow.

 

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