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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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Theistic Evolution: Teleology and Front-End Loading

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Thursday, January 25, 2018

Teleology plays a key role in our thinking about origins, often in an implicit way. One area where it comes to the fore is when thinking about “front-end loading.” Meyer uses a cumbersome title for his Chapter Six: “The Difference It Doesn’t Make: Why the ‘Front-End Loaded’ Concept of Design Fails to Explain the Origin of Biological Information.” It is primarily a polemic against Denis Lamoureux whose name Meyer mentions several dozen times. But the real issue is the tricky problem of front-end loading.

The term “front-end loading” is shorthand for the concept that all the influence God needs to carry out his creative intent is to establish the necessary conditions at the very beginning and let the laws of nature do the rest over time. Such a concept leads us to the precipice of deism in which God is no longer involved or necessary after the beginning. Meyer seeks to connect Lamoureux’s version of theistic evolution with deism and aims to discount theistic evolution by showing the failure of front-end loading.

In my opinion, the charge is misdirected. As I understand it, deism attributes autonomy to the laws of nature so that once created they exist and operate throughout time without God. Lamoureux never asserts anything of the sort. For him the laws of nature are our understanding of the consistency of God’s action as he sustains the universe at every moment. In other words, from a theological perspective, the laws of nature are descriptive and not prescriptive, describing how God acts rather than autonomously determining what happens. From a scientific perspective, the laws of nature appear prescriptive because they reflect a reliable cause and effect pattern so that given a known cause, the effect can be predicted.

Front-end loading does not demand deism but it is connected with our view of teleology. Our universe is not deterministic. Neither classical nor quantum mechanics compels us to a deterministic universe. This means that there is insufficient information at the Big Bang to specify the details of the universe nearly fourteen billion years later. The high degree of contingency in the evolution of planets, stars, and galaxies as well as in biological evolution ensures that no specific configuration can be mandated in advance. However, the possibility space explored by the expression of the laws of nature is vast and the existence of some life-friendly planets and some form of life may be highly probable, though we do not know for certain. A dilemma arises from the theological perspective that God from the beginning had us humans in mind in great specificity. Such a high level of detail cannot be specified in a front-end loaded system. This is the direction Meyer takes in rejecting front-end loading as well as theistic evolution.

However, front-end loading does set the stage for the evolution of a grand universe in which some form of sentient life is highly likely. Chris Barrigar, in Chapter 2 of his book, Freedom All The Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age (Victoria, BC: Friesen, 2017), takes this approach. He argues that God’s desire is to create a universe which would have a high probability of leading to beings capable of reciprocal agape love. One could also contend that God has infinite foreknowledge and knew what forms of life would be forthcoming from a front-end loaded universe.

In summary, the issue of front-end loading is not a deistic issue but deals with the way in which God carries out his purposes. This is the same issue I discussed in the previous post “Directed or Undirected.” Both theistic evolutionists and their critics in this book believe that God created the universe and that his purpose is to establish a loving, redemptive relationship with human beings. The difference seems to lie in the level of specificity of God’s intent and the manner in which God can carry out his purposes. Theistic evolutionists are convinced that God can carry out his purposes, whatever they may be, through actions consistent with the laws of nature. We may not fully understand or know the details of God’s purposes or how they are fulfilled but we have faith that they are. For the critic, God can only fulfill his purposes by acting in ways that are not consistent with the laws of nature. Such deviation need only be in skewing the probabilities of phenomena and we do not know just how God might take such action.

Ultimately, Meyer’s claims in this chapter fail on two counts, in my opinion. One is the erroneous charge that theistic evolutionists, or at least some of them, are deistic because of a front-end loaded emphasis. The other is the insistence that since sufficient information cannot exist at the beginning of the universe to determine the fulfillment of God’s intent over time, then God must intervene in the laws of nature to achieve his purposes.

Tags:  teleology  theistic evolution 

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