Death, the Fall, and Darwin: The Only Absolute: There are no absolutes, Part 4 of 7

One more thing to do before we frame an evolutionary interpretation of the Fall—we must destroy absolutes. Absolutes seem antithetical to much of Mormon theology. Ideas such as embodiment, temporality, gendered deities, the agential nature of existence, the implications of emergence, and a god who weeps seem to be antithetical to the God of classic monothesism. Much of the neoplatonism upon which much of Christianity rests, relies on a set of absolutes that misdirect our Mormony gaze in ways that have allowed things like arguments from creation ex nihilo that structure many current creationist leanings to have crept into our creation narratives. Modern creationism seems to fly in the face of what we have discovered about the universe.

In fact, within philosophy of science there is a strong move to do away with the idea of “Laws” of the universe and focus instead on tendencies and capacities. So, as an experiment lets do away with absolutes and consider a different set of possibilities contained within Mormon Scripture, prophetic utterances, and the unfolding of science. So what if omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence really are not aspects of God? What if we make no claims to any of the usual absolutes?

So how do we abandon absolutes? Quentin Meillassoux has done all the work for us. Meillassoux was a student of Badiau and in his essay An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, he makes a rigorous defense of the idea of abandoning all absolutes, except the absolute necessity of abandoning all absolutes as traditionally construed. He writes:

The absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being. We are no longer upholding a variant of the principle of sufficient reason, according to which there is a necessary reason why everything is the way it is rather than otherwise, but rather the absolute truth of a principle of unreason. There is no reason for anything to be or to remain the way it is; everything must, without reason, be able not to be and/or be able to be other than it is. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Kindle Locations 893-896). Kindle Edition.

This allows the idea of agency and freedom in ways not contained in strictly determinist universe. Also, contingency is the sine qua non of all evolutionary biology (which is nice because modern physics is committed quantum mechanics which also suggests that it is randomness that undergirds the universe). It is the structure upon which the theory of evolution rests. It appears strongly that contingency is what structures life on Earth and any account of ontology must, I suggest, provide for its possibility. Meillassoux again:

By way of contrast, speculation proceeds by accentuating thought’s relinquishment of the principle of reason to the point where this relinquishment is converted into a principle, which alone allows us to grasp the fact that there is absolutely no ultimate Reason, whether thinkable or unthinkable. There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given – nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence. Quentin Meillassoux. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Kindle Locations 936-939). Kindle Edition.

Destruction, emergence, or persistence the very components necessary for an evolutionary construction. It’s important to remember that evolution is not a law, or any kind of nomic force. Evolution by natural selection is an a priori principle according to Christian Illies. As given, it requires no empirical content, neither is it a particular law in a given universe. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it a sorting algorithm, but it always holds under the following conditions:

(1) Variation in traits
(2) Selection on trait differences
(3) Trait attributes are to some extent inherited by ‘offspring’ from ‘parents’

This works whether these are chemicals, digital computer programs, or beans in a jar—anything. This a priori description of evolution by natural selection is not really in dispute (try it at home with playing cards if you like). It is obviously just a sorting algorithm that sorts things based on some selection criteria, usually determined by some environment where the traits vary on how well they fare in that environment.

Upon the backs of contingency and evolution rest the idea of novelty entering the universe. If it appears that contingency, stochasticity, and randomness are all part of the deep fabric of the universe, then what do we gain by making it a metaphysical backdrop? Much. Most theologies of which I’m familiar try to either claim that it is not real, or that it masks a deeper determinism controlled by an absolute conception of God. I think either approach misses a deeper possibility: contingency is real and is the reality with which God, with other beings such as ourselves, are embedded. Notice I did not use the term ‘absolute beings’ as gets often put because we interpret co-eternal with God as having always existed. This is often based on the scripture:

Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. D&C 93:29

However, it quickly becomes apparent that this beginning need not have been unconditioned, or that it is not itself some sort of Baudiouean ‘event.’ As the scriptures that follow make it clear that intelligence, is a kind of truth bearing substance and not necessarily agential. The only thing we have as a guarantee is that element is eternal:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy; D&C 93:33

So if there are no absolutes, if contingency rules the nature of reality, what sort of theology is it possible to construct?

Comments

  1. Very nice post. You have given me something deep to think about for the next few days.

    “in his essay An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency”

    That sounds like an extremely interesting book and I will be reading it for sure. I guess the reason I said this gives me something to mull over for the next few days is, if nothing is absolute (and there are no laws), I guess I this leads to the question: is anything really true? And what is the point of intellectual conversations if nothing is absolutely true as this seems to suggest there is no actual grounding to any claim or idea we have.

    Anyways, I think this post is deep and profound and thus I am excited to read the book. I just have to digest for a while.

  2. Shawn H says:

    I’m really enjoying this series Steve. This coincides nicely with my thinking on many things, but especially where evil came from. If God is perfect as we define the word, then how did he create something that has the capacity to be evil? How did Satan come from a perfect being? My conclusion is that we have that potentiality as part of our spirit essence, that “intelligence” is more than just a “kind of truth bearing substance” – it becomes a substance that contains all potentiality. It convinces me more of my need for God and the atonement because I don’t know how to change that substance, exalt it, if you will, so that the potential for evil inherent in me either disappears or becomes fully subsumed in the potential for doing good.

  3. Like this one a lot, Steve.

  4. 2 issues here that may be problematic. 1) Where macro-determinism does not exist, there can be no agency. Or in other words, an individual cannot be rightly described as an agent over choice if that individual’s choices are randomly determined (whether probabilities factor in or not). To be an agent and have meaningful accountability, one must be able at the fundamental level to cause/determine their individual choices. 2) If we assume life can arise on its own randomly, and further assume an infinite universe with a God with only finite knowledge–it implies there will be an infinite amount of planets with life on them, and only a select finite number of them that God knows about and has any dealing with. (If you’re not positing that life can arise on its own in the first place, then this second issue can be disregarded.)

  5. Leonard R. says:

    I’m almost sad to see this is 4 of 7. It’s like a good book – I want to get to the end, but don’t want it to be over.

    I will need to read the last bit a few extra times though; not sure I’m quite connecting the dots re: intelligences.

  6. Joseph: Thanks, I appreciate your excitement about the project. “if nothing is absolute (and there are no laws), I guess I this leads to the question: is anything really true?” Actually, the claim there is no laws is akin to the idea in math of geometry. There is in reality no ‘real’ triangle, but it doesn’t mean that there are not things that are a close enough approximation that ‘triangle theory’ isn’t useful. I mean for building a space ship something protractors and plastic triangle are still useful. So no laws isn’t a claim that there are no regularities we can draw on. It’s just that locally things may not turn out to follow ‘laws’ because of the bumps and dapples of reality.

    Steve: Random does not mean that there is no predictability at all, it does mean it will be noisy, and you may be only able to get a probability distribution rather than an exact value. And yes I will be arguing that God himself does not escape from randomness. But we have to be careful here. There is a folk idea of randomness that is not what we mean in evolution or science. The idea of randomness in the popular mind seems to imply that evolution claims that one second there was no life on earth and then ‘poof’ now there is. This ‘magic’ is not the kind of randomness that evolution requires or talks about. It’s really talking about unpredictability for an agent (defined very broadly) in an given environment. Meaning changes can occur in directions one cannot form a law (or regularity sense we did away with laws) to capture. That might be because there are regularities in play that are outside that system (for example, the licence number of the car next to me is random relative to me because nothing I did or could have done influenced that once I decided to park there), or it might be true randomness in like a quantum effect clicking an ‘A’ to a ‘G’ on a strand of DNA (although there is debate in physics whether quantum effects might be part of a deeper reality the laws of which we don’t have access).

    We’ll be moving onto this soon. Giving a closer look at randomness, agency, and doing away (invariably) with a deterministic universe forever.

  7. @Steve P. I also think that a certain degree of true randomness can theoretically exist in the universe and still be compatible with LDS theology, although in most cases I am more comfortable with the concept of apparent randomness “that might be because there are regularities in play that are outside that system.” But while the universe might not be deterministic in whole, it must at least be deterministic in part as it relates to moral choice, otherwise there can be no agency (a la point 1 above / Daniel Dennett’s logic concerning free will and determinism). So while I can accept apparent randomness and a degree of true randomness, I hope you are not throwing out determinism altogether in your model as it would then become seemingly logically incompatible with agency (and some other aspects of LDS theology if taken at face value–revelation, prophecy, foreknowledge of God, etc.).

    In my second point, I was mostly concerned with the origin of life itself, not so much evolution. If we posit life itself can arise on its own through natural means independent of God’s input, and we assume an infinite universe and a God with finite knowledge, I think my second point raises a valid concern with such a model.

  8. I agree that many absolutes commonly held within Mormonism should be rejected, and that many more deserve very close scrutiny. Refusing to do so inhibits progress. But I don’t see how there can be any meaningful religion that rejects all absolutes. For me, the viability of Mormonism depends on several remaining inviolate: God exists, so does message passing between heaven and earth, there is an afterlife, Jesus was resurrected, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and a few other standard base points. It seems inconsistent to say that “The only thing we have as a guarantee is that element is eternal”, and then follow immediately by claiming to assume that “there are no absolutes”. My first answer to you final question is that there can be no meaningful theology if there are no absolutes, but on the other hand it might be functionally equivalent to say that you are then free to construct whatever theology you like.

  9. Just a point, quantum mechanics is absolutely not random. The outcome of any experiment is determined, absolutely, to a probability. This is, technically, not random because, as the experiment is conducted, the theory will be affirmed. This, it may be argued, is just a weaker version of classical determinacy. An example of pure randomness is a classical gas where all properties are represented by a distribution function. After all, quantum mechanics is the reason we have quartz crystals.

  10. Just a point to a point, a classical gas is deterministic, but its statistical properties can be described with a distribution function. Quantum mechanics is fundamentally random, but probabilities for interactions, etc, can be absolutely determined.

  11. So absolute randomness is the most deterministic on a bulk basis. The classical gas is only deterministic in the bulk, not in detail. I think, when we are discussing quantum mechanics we are not discussing bulk properties, but microscopic properties. Without a microscopic quantum model, bulk properties are not possible to calculate.

    The microscopic properties of a classical gas are absolutely random which are determined by simple distribution functions.

    When I think of randomness I think of the absolute bulk determinacy of the classical gas which arises from the absolute randomness of the microscopic particles. When I think of quantum mechanics I think of non-determinacy which allows for all of the absolute structure of our real universe. There may be many outcomes, but they are choices between outcomes all of which, in our universe, allow for intelligence and quartz crystals. The randomness of the atoms of classical gas does not allow for either.

    There is a difference between non-determinacy and randomness.

  12. No, a classical gas is deterministic at the microscopic level. That is, if you completely specify the state of the system – the position and velocity of each particle, then you can predict the state at any future time. The time evolution is governed by Newton’s laws (that’s what the “classical” means). This is not practical for real systems because of the complexity of the initial state (and anyway it’s generally statistical properties like temperature that are of interest), but can be done with computer simulations.

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