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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A prompt towards a more holistic contemplative of evolution and its processes

Tonight I was at the 2016 Boyle lecture in St Mary-le-Bow given by Professor Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Murray Edwards College. This annual lecture series addresses topics which explore the relationship between Christianity and our contemporary understanding of the natural world.

Coakley's lecture was entitled 'Natural Theology in a Changed Key? Evolution, Cooperation and the God Question'. She writes: 'The latter part of the 20th century saw a revulsion against classic forms of "natural theology" which was propelled as much by theological fashion as by secular scientific resistance. This lecture lays out a cautious case for the reconsideration of a new style of "natural theology". It does so in the light of remarkable new discoveries in mathematicalized accounts of evolutionary "cooperation" which significantly challenge the idea of pervasive randomness in evolutionary processes. The ethical and teleological questions which are raised by these cooperative phenomena, it is argued, demand some sort of meaning-making response and ultimately metaphysical issues cannot be shirked. The question of God is reconsidered in this context, with a surprising final twist to the argument in which the human epistemic subject is itself drawn towards an invited transformation.'

She spoke about five different evolutionary mechanisms, identified by Martin A. Nowak, 'in which 'cooperation' can be shown to be favoured in repeated choices.' She, therefore, attributes 'certain forms of patterned and pervasive cooperative structure to different levels of the evolutionary spectrum', particularly those 'which arise in intentionally-motivated higher-mammal cooperation and human altruism.' To do so, is to make philosophical proposals about the fundamental nature of evolution's dynamics. Doing so, equates to the contemplative practice outlined by Origen of seeing existence as-a-whole; which, necessarily, 'is no longer strictly evolutionary science nor yet philosophy of science.'

Coakley is helpfully suggesting that the existence of cooperation in the dynamics of evolution is both a corrective to explanations of evolution predicated on selfish genes and a prompt towards a more holistic contemplative of evolution and its processes. What she proposes is 'a unified spiritual thought-experiment evoked precisely by critical reflection on evolutionary cooperation and its ethical and metaphysical meanings.' This is a profoundly helpful and hopeful proposal; one which, she notes, 'may itself evince a new creative posture of hope.'


George Harrison - What Is Life?

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