Could God have evolved?

1. How a common argument for the existence of God failed—or did it?

As a philosophy instructor, I often taught the topic of arguments for the existence of God. One of the most common arguments, called the argument from design or teleological argument, in one formulation compares God to a watchmaker.

If you were walking along a beach and found some complex machine that certainly appeared to be designed by someone, which did something amazing, then you’d conclude that it had a maker. But here we are in a universe that exhibits far more complexity and design than any machine we’ve ever devised. Therefore, the universe has a maker as well; we call it God.

This is sometimes called the Watchmaker Argument—since the mechanism our beachcomber finds is usually a watch—and is attributed to William Paley. Variations on this theme could be the single most commonly-advanced argument for God.

The reason the Watchmaker Argument doesn’t persuade a lot of philosophers—and quite a few scientists and atheists generally—is that all the purported signs of design can be found in the biological world, and if biological complexity and appearance of design can be explained by natural selection, then God is no longer needed as an explanatory tool.

Some skeptics go a bit further and say that all the minds we have experience of are woefully inadequate for purposes of designing the complexity of life. Therefore, not only are natural mechanisms another explanation, they are a much better explanation, as far as our own experience of minds and designing is concerned.

But here I find myself skeptical of these particular skeptics.

2. Modern technology looks like magic

Recently, probably because I’ve been studying programming and am understanding the innards of technology better than ever, it has occurred to me very vividly that we may not be able to properly plumb the depths of what minds are capable of achieving. After all, imagine what a medieval peasant would make of modern technology. As lovers of technology often say, it would look like magic, and we would look like gods.

We’ve been working at this scientific innovation thing for only a few centuries, and we’ve been aggressively and intelligently innovating technology for maybe one century. Things we do now in 2017 are well into the realm of science fiction of 1917. We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let’s suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn’t it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild? After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who’s to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

Now, what havoc should these reflections wreak on our religious philosophy?

3. Could an evolved superbeing satisfy the requirements of our religions?

The scientific atheist holds the physical universe in great reverence, as something that exists in its full complexity far beyond the comprehension of human beings. The notion of a primitive “jealous God” of primitive religions is thought laughable, in the face of the immense complexity of the universe that this God is supposed to have created. Our brains are just so much meat, limited and fallible. The notion that anything like us might have created the universe is ridiculous.

Yet it is in observing the development of science and technology, thinking about how we ourselves might be enhanced by that science and technology, that we might come to an opposite conclusion. Perhaps the God of nomadic tent-dwellers couldn’t design the universe. But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we’re witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

And why couldn’t such a superbeing turn out to be the God of the nomadic tent-dwellers?

Atheists are wrong to dismiss the divine if they do so on grounds that no gods are sufficiently complex to create everything we see around us. They believe in evolution and they see technology evolving all around us. Couldn’t god-like beings have evolved elsewhere and gotten here? Could we, after sufficient time, evolve into god-like beings ourselves?

What if it turns out that the advent of the Singularity has the effect of joining us all to the Godhead that is as much technological as it is physical and spiritual? And suppose that’s what, in reality, satisfies the ancient Hebrew notions of armageddon and heaven, and the Buddhist notion of nirvana. And suppose that, when that time comes, it is the humble, faithful, just, generous, self-denying, courageous, righteous, respectful, and kind people that are accepted into this union, while the others are not.

4. But I’m still an agnostic

These wild speculations aren’t enough to make me any less of an agnostic. I still don’t see evidence that God exists, or that the traditional (e.g., Thomistic) conception of God is even coherent or comprehensible. For all we know, the universe is self-existing and life on Earth evolved, and that’s all the explanation we should ever expect for anything.

But these considerations do make me much more impressed by the fact that we do not understand how various minds in the universe might evolve, or might have evolved, and how they might have already interacted with the universe we know. There are facts about these matters about which we are ignorant, and the scientific approach is to withhold judgment about them until the data are in.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

6 Responses to "Could God have evolved?"
  1. Reply Nathan Rinne May 26, 2017 06:10 am

    Larry,

    What do you think of this question: how can what is personal and social arise from what is impersonal?

    -Nathan

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 10, 2017 11:21 am

      Sorry for the delay in response.

      It’s a very general and theoretical question; it’s like asking, “How can life arise from nonlife?” or “How can consciousness arise from matter?” These are very difficult questions that exercise both scientists and philosophers. I find that much is clarified if we can reduce the problem to something rather simpler, clearer, and more tractable, e.g., How could complex proteins start reproducing themselves? Is there some analogy we might use to make more plausible that consciousness might be a process or property of some very complex configuration of matter? Would a sufficiently complex computer system, deeply “aware” of its various internal states, really count as being conscious?

      Similarly, in the case of recognizable “persons,” we might ask: If a machine were sufficiently complex and “aware” of its internal states, and sufficiently stochastic as to seem to come in interesting varieties, would those machines seem to be persons? And would they meet the qualifications needed to be persons? What are the qualifications needed to be a person?

      Philosophical questions, those.

  2. Reply Nathan Rinne May 27, 2017 12:13 pm

    BTW, if you have not discovered them already, I am guessing you might enjoy / appreciate Jordan Peterson’s lectures (he is doing lectures on the Bible now in front of sold-out crowds in Canada).

    -Nathan

    • Reply jesse adams June 21, 2017 12:09 pm

      very nice link – thanks for opening that gate…

    • Reply Larry Sanger August 10, 2017 11:22 am

      I actually started watching some of his videos especially when he came out as a champion of free speech. I like him.

  3. Reply jesse adams June 21, 2017 12:07 pm

    surely the magnitude of size and time length of the universe, reflect the difficulty of the problem… how could a man / being have employed the mechanics – to have resulted – in such a glorious place!

    hi larry, we used to work together on your watchknow project (more than 10 years ago – i think). i used to use the infinitearchive@live.com email address.

    unfortunately, i am not able to access my infinitearchive@live.com email address anymore…

    i am still at #20 on your leader board at watch know.

    i am hoping to reestablish a link with you, if you will permit me to.

    have a great day!

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