Can God Emerge from a Material Universe?
These are a few notes in response to a recent article by Sam Young entitled ‘A Secular Path to God’. He has asked for some thoughtful discussion, so this is my contribution. I’m publishing it as an article, in order hopefully to widen the discussion and include others.
I’ll begin by summarising the thread of his argument, extracting those parts that I would like to comment on.
He opens by saying that his argument stands or falls on the truth of the concept of emergentism, the belief that at a certain stage of evolutionary complexity, a new and unpredictable phenomenon suddenly emerges. As he says, the whole is then greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be explained in terms of them. It is therefore contrasted with reductionism.
He provides the example of an ant hill, in which individual ants are stupid, but as a collective they can build spectacular structures (which, I might add, take much longer to build than the life of any individual ant). He says that the colony is “an emergent property of a specific arrangement of individual ants”.
The most obvious example of an emergent property, according to the viewpoint of modern science, is that of consciousness emerging from the physical brain. Young agrees, saying that he takes this for granted.
He then says that “it’s simple to go from here to God. Not a specific god mind you, rather the general concept of a higher being, power, or consciousness”. He then makes the assumption that such a God is possible; it would be “a ‘consciousness’ among us to whom we are like ants”, and “it may not even be possible to prove it exists”. He concludes by saying that he may have “revealed a sort of enlightened pantheism”.
My purpose here is to offer an alternative interpretation of the phenomenon Young is describing, and the ideas he is discussing.
As a generalisation, he argues very much from a materialist perspective, frequently assumed to be true by modern scientists, most clearly here: “If the most sublime phenomenon we know, consciousness, merely arises from a network of insentient cells, which themselves originate from organizations of indifferent particles, who’s to say there aren’t even more incredible emergent properties? Could we not be neurons in a greater mind?” I’m going to argue that a spiritual, non-materialist understanding is more likely, and therefore more persuasive. I won’t, however, necessarily try to prove the ideas that I outline, merely offer them for consideration.
I’ll begin with his conclusion. He believes that “a higher being, power, or consciousness”, which he calls God, might emerge from what started as the material universe, including human brains and consciousness. He is openly saying that this spirit does not yet exist, and is thus advocating a bottom-up approach. I therefore ask the question: which is more likely, his version, or that a universal spirit/power/energy is driving the whole process from the outset? The true picture may be rather top-down; spirit exists from the beginning, and is the guiding force behind the evolution of the (apparently) material universe. This is a simpler, more credible explanation than that something like consciousness, or God, can mysteriously and magically appear out of nowhere at a certain level of complexity.
Young says: “I’m partial to the concept of a world spirit. By world, I don’t necessary mean the universe as a whole…” (That would be one understanding of God.) “…but rather the subset relevant to humanity…” (That would be something like the Noosphere, see below.) “… or even the subset relevant to specific person”. (This is what in spiritual traditions is sometimes called the soul.)
He says that “it’s impossible for the universe to fully understand itself”. He cannot know that for certain, however, and that may actually be the purpose of the process of manifestation, the culmination of the whole process of evolution, that the ultimate transcendent spirit becomes fully aware of itself through beings like conscious humans becoming ever more conscious.
This is his description of the brain, “basically a meat computer, built on networks of neurons, action potentials, glial cells, and other structures, (which)doesn’t appear to have a central source”. He calls this “our current understanding”. That is debatable; it may be the understanding of certain materialist scientists, but I would say that this does not make it true. I personally believe that what is known as the Transmission Model is closer to the truth — the idea that the brain is an organ which limits and filters consciousness.
Regarding the phenomenon of emergence as usually understood, it seems to be an attempt to retain the underlying assumptions of materialism. Nothing in the earlier configuration would lead one to believe that this new property is about to appear. Thus, in the case of consciousness, emergentism is an attempt to bypass what is known as the Hard Problem; no one can offer a scientific explanation of how the brain produces consciousness, so let’s just say that it must emerge spontaneously, albeit mysteriously, magically, and inexplicably from nowhere. Is it not more reasonable to suggest that it emerges from somewhere? The problem with this suggestion is that this ‘somewhere’ is likely to be something non-material, some kind of pre-existing but latent spiritual force or energy. This would not be welcomed by science’s ‘current understanding’, that the brain is somehow responsible for consciousness.
Young, discussing his understanding of an ant colony, says that it “must somehow simulate itself”. He then continues: “This is where we run into a paradox. As soon as you build a simulation of your own environment, that simulation becomes part of the environment. So, you have to simulate the simulation within the simulation, and then you have to simulate the simulation of the simulation in the simulation, and this goes on forever”.
Here he has unsurprisingly run up against the problem of Infinite Regress, which is frequently encountered in debates about the existence of God. Arguably the most likely solution, although hard for the rational mind to accept, is that the Ultimate Principle we sometimes call God is an infinite, eternal Uncaused Cause.
Young says: “My intuition is that there are higher-level mechanisms, bizarre super-organisms that can be felt in our everyday lives and ‘understood’ at a gut level, even if they completely escape formal capture”. An interesting question for him: if these super-organisms can be felt and understood at a gut level, would it not be more appropriate to say that they already exist, even if hidden from us, not that they will spontaneously emerge out of nowhere at some future level of complexity?
Ant nests are frequently described as superorganisms. Young says that the ants are guided to perform their tasks by pheromones, so an interesting question would be, how does he think chemical olfactory signals can trigger such complex, purposive behaviours? A more credible explanation might be that some kind of group mind was present from the beginning, not something which emerged from a large group of individual ants. (This is the explanation offered by the controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake.)
Returning to one of his statements I quoted above: “If the most sublime phenomenon we know, consciousness, merely arises from a network of insentient cells, which themselves originate from organizations of indifferent particles, who’s to say there aren’t even more incredible emergent properties? Could we not be neurons in a greater mind?” The phrases I’ve italicised are of course assumptions, not necessarily truth. Indeed we could be part of a greater mind, although I would prefer to compare us to brain cells rather than neurons. This is consistent with holographic theories of the brain and person. It is also consistent with the theory of the Noosphere, a planetary consciousness, as developed by Teilhard de Chardin. Like Young, he believed that this was the next evolutionary step for the planet. Unlike Young, however, he saw this as part of the process of evolution of the Divine Spirit. His was a spiritual, religious idea, not something than can be the outcome of materialist science.
Relevant reading: The Awakening Earth by Peter Russell
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).