CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT
"Nothing will come of nothing" - King
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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