Bishop offers reflections on evolution and creation


By Bishop Mack B. Stokes

Guest Columnist

I choose to begin this essay by defining the word, “explanation.”

That word may mean classification; that is, grouping a thing with others of a similar nature or class. In the case of evolution, that view seems to be made more plausible by a pictorial list of animals which, step by step, are said to belong in the same family line. That list might begin with a creature of one cell, such as an amoeba, and move to more and more complex organisms until finally coming to the animal world ending with human beings. Immediately preceding humans are such animals as the big apes and chimpanzees.

After this last, come the humanids which are supposed to have been far closer to our own kind as humans. This would be explanation by classification.

Another definition of “explanation” requires the word “causal” before it. The human mind is so made that, in addition to any kind of classification, it seeks causal explanation in answer to the question, “What caused this or that change?” This is known in philosophy as the principle of sufficient reason, that is, the principle of adequate causal explanation.

To be sure, evolutionists do more than classify; they also give efforts at causal explanation. For they insist on the survival of the fittest, natural selection given sufficient time etc. Recognizing that the words “given sufficient time,” add nothing causal to natural selection, I leave it to others to judge or perceive for themselves whether evolution can explain all that we find that is relevant.

Jacques Monod, a French scientist, received the Nobel Prize in physiology. He wrote the book Chance and Necessity. There he said that man arrived on this earth by chance. In his words, “Our number came up on a Monte Carlo game.” Others follow in his train by stating that we were “thrown into existence” or that we are products of “a magnificent accident,” etc.

If we rely on necessity, we have a fundamental problem on our hands of under-mining all knowledge by lapsing into the unending regress, on the one hand, or of physically forced conclusions on the other. Plato threw some light on these issues when he said:

“I mean this: when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle?” — Laws, II, 638.

At this point, I raise two questions which are directly related to our survival on earth.

  1. How is it possible that the physical world is intelligible by us?
  2. Can we really know the physical world?

These questions take us far beyond the narrow confines of biological evolution. Einstein put the problem of knowledge in this way: “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” As far as I know, he made no effort to give a causal explanation of this plain fact. He simply left it as a paradox. But some minds of more philosophical bent have sought for an adequate answer. Here’s the way their thought runs:

Only God, the Ultimate Mind, could have created a world to be intelligible, and only God could have created our finite minds who know the physical world. There is mind at both ends of the line: the Ultimate Mind of God at one end, the finite minds of human beings at the other. In ways known only to God, both human beings, with their remarkable minds, and the wonderful intelligible realm of nature were brought forth by God.

To create means to cause to be what was not. Only God can do that. Here we move beyond science, without in the least minimizing its magnificent achievements, into metaphysics, the realm of Ultimate Reality. For God is not only the Creator; also God is the Lord of Truth — as it comes from the sciences and other sources.

Now let us move to one more universally known reality that calls for adequate explanation, namely, the human conscious self, mind or person. This is also known as the soul. Recently, I received a pamphlet containing a brief description of all the books published by the press of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the first 23 pages, under the heading, “Philosophy of Mind,” I counted more than 40 books. Brain scientists, philosophers, cognitive psychologists and others are represented.

I believe that, on all major subjects, different approaches are helpful for the dialectical movement toward truth. But in this brief essay, I do not choose to begin with an account of various scholarly treatments of the human mind. I choose simply to view the whole area of interpersonal relations as the laboratory in which every human being is a witness. In the realm of common sense, people know through conversation and observation, many things that are certainties which no one can prove. Indeed, both scientists and those who know from common sense proceed by certainties which they cannot prove. And, where the knowledge of people is concerned, I would be willing to state that if scholars adopt a view on human  nature which runs counter to the prevailing view of common sense, they should go back to the drawing boards.

What do we know about people by common sense that is important to my purpose here?

  • We know that each person is an individual. Persons, whether in the family or in other interpersonal relations are not to be confused with each other; nor are they to be thought of as being composed of environmental factors such as their brains or other bodily parts which are closely related to their selves or persons.
  • Though there physical similarities between human beings and other animals, vast oceans lie between the two. To mention only one thing, namely, that we speak, hear and understand languages. A traveler in Paris wrote home saying, “Even the children speak French in this city.” We not only speak and hear language-in-sentences: we write and know the meaning of words.
  • Human beings develop civilizations. There is a vast difference between what ants do and our human civilizations. Ants work by necessity to fixed ends; we have the freedom to be different, to be creative. That’s why Athens is not Rome and neither of these is Jerusalem or London.
  • Human beings are capable of growing and adventuring in goodness, beauty, truth and holiness. To linger only on the first of these, goodness, we know the difference between right and wrong. The biologist need not mention this, but it is as much a part of human nature as being male and female.
  • When the prophets, psalmists and Jesus speak of the souls, we know that they mean something not only real, but of supreme worth. So when Jesus asked, “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” this cannot be laid aside by assuming that everything is physical or reducible to something physical.
  • The primal fact of conscious selves, persons or souls, with its implications of selfhood, self-identity, personal integrity and moral responsibility, abides.

In conclusion, why are not “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” plus the movement of simple organisms toward more complex organisms adequate? Because they do not enable us to perceive their cogency as adequate causal explanation of what we find. Similarly, though with no logical source, when anyone says that we came “by a magnificent accident,” we cannot perceive adequate causal explanation.

I doubt that a biologist could proceed without asking the question, “What ends does this complex dynamic entity serve?” But in the far larger perspective, our minds can be satisfied only going beyond “ends in nature” to the governance of nature by a supreme Mind who directs it to an end of eternal value. We perceive glimpses of this in the combination of the intelligibility of the physical world and the dignity and unutterable preciousness of the human soul.

© Copyright Mack B. Stokes 2006

A retired bishop, Stokes served on the faculty of Candler School of Theology at Emory University from 1953-72. He was elected bishop in 1972 and served the Mississippi Conference until his retirement in 1980. During retirement Stokes has written six books. He now lives in Waynesville, N.C.