February 07, 2006

The ecological model of the universe

A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch Chapter 3: Purpose in the Universe
The internal aspect of the submicroscopic events has been given a new depth of meaning by Bohm (1973, 1977, 1980) in his interpretation of quantum physics. Elementary particles, so called, are an abstraction. There are no particles. ‘What is needed,’ says (Bohm 1980), ‘. . . is to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or "building blocks". Rather, one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes’ (p. 9). So physicists are now saying what Whitehead said long ago: nature consists in the last analysis of ‘events not things’. And further, ‘neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of "really real" things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe’ (Whitehead 1966 p. 150)...
The ecological model of the universe helps us to overcome the dichotomy between the individual and its relations to its environment, between the living and the non-living, between freedom and determinism and between nature and God. And it provides a basis for a non-anthropocentric ethic that includes nature as a whole. The doctrine of mere-matter, mere-mindless and feelingless stuff puts limits to things with which we can empathize. But if in physical nature also there is experience, then there is a universal community for mutual participation and sympathy. The degree to which a given entity requires ethical concern in its own right is relative to its capacity for experience.
The objective of this chapter has been to establish that the universe is the sort of existence in which purpose can operate. For that it was necessary to establish that the individual entities of existence are themselves of such a nature that they could be responsive to influences that can be called purposive. The nature of these influences is largely the subject of the next chapter. But this next chapter will make no sense at all unless we have grasped the distinction between the world as it appears on the one hand outwardly and as revealed by mechanistic science, and on the other hand the world that is hidden beneath appearances but is as real.
The distinction is well made by Griffin (1985 p. 185) between what he calls the actual world of real causal efficacy and the world as it appears to our sensory perception, especially vision. This latter world is not the world as it actually is. It is the appearance of the actual world produced by our sensory and conscious experience. This appearance is not a total falsification of the actual world, but it involves gross simplification and distortion. ‘In particular,’ says Griffin (1985),
it presents us with a world in which things appear to be passive rather than active, to be externally rather than internally related to other things, to have no experience, no aim, no self-value. And of course natural science has largely limited itself to this world of appearance -- to the world as known to the senses and instruments designed to amplify them. Accordingly, if the world as it appears to scientific study is taken to be the actual world, we get a picture of the world as made of externally related, passive, aimless, valueless bits of stuff. And such a world can clearly provide no intelligible explanations as to why it behaves as does. Explanation, as opposed to merely descriptive generalization (which is positivism), requires resort to something hidden beneath the appearances. (p. 185)
The dominant assumption among those seeking explanations in our time has been that the actual world is composed of entities whose reality is exhausted by their appearances. What they are in themselves is not thought to be essentially different from what they are in appearance. This has produced the materialistic mechanistic worldview.

In seeking an alternative model I have drawn clues for this chapter largely from two sources.

  • One is the ‘new’ or quantum physics. For the uninitiated like myself, modern physicists have been generous in providing interpretations of the new physics. One of the best is Pagels’ (1984) The Cosmic Code.
  • My second main source is the thought of A. N. Whitehead and others in the tradition of ‘process thought’ who have come to the conclusion that individual entities in themselves are subjects, aiming at and realizing value, and being internally related to other actual entities in their environments.

In such a universe the God of the machine is totally irrelevant. Much the same conclusion has been reached from a rather different approach by scientist -- theologian Arthur Peacocke (1984). He rejects mechanistic determinism and argues for a more ecological concept of nature and the continual involvement of God’s creative activity in the universe. It is only within a universe where determinism no longer reigns and where entities have some degree of freedom that such a God can be involved.

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