The theory of natural evolution and the conflict between science and religion. The proposal of process philosophy

1. Introduction

Since its first formulations, the theory of natural evolution has been one of the most interesting and challenging theories that characterises the modern worldview. Although the evolutionary theory revolutionised the way of conceiving the system of nature and its functioning, it is not exempt from problems, especially regarding the conflict between the religious super-naturalistic view and the scientific one. The aim of this paper is threefold: firstly, I will point out some points of tension between religion and science caused by the theory of evolution; secondly, I will stress some philosophical and scientific difficulties in the evolutionary theory; thirdly, I will suggest a philosophical solution to these problems, represented by process philosophy and its metaphysic framework.1

2. The theory of evolution, main traits

By the term “evolutionism” it is meant a group of scientific doctrines related to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Even if among evolutionary theories there are differences (for example Darwin’s theory of evolution partly differs from the so called neo-Darwinian theory), it is possible to point out a set of essential principles which belong to the core of evolutionism: a) All actual species descend from previous species through modifications over a long period of time; b) The principle of gradualism: evolution is a step-by-step process, new species gradually develop through tiny, small inherited modifications; d) The force that operates in evolution is the natural selection. Among random genetic modifications, it determines the survival of the fittest species, namely those species which have the best adaptive features for that particular environment. On the contrary, all species that show non-adaptive features are doomed to extinction; e) The notion of random variations. These variations, intended as genetic mutations, are random in the meaning of not being always adaptively advantageous for the organism; f) The principle of scientific naturalism according to which supernatural factors are excluded from scientific explanations. Scientific naturalism rules out extraordinary divine interventions in the processes of nature, admitting only natural causes; g) Related with the previous principle, there is the positivistic attitude that excludes from scientific theories all factors not empirically observable through sensory observations. Only physical and material causes are admitted as explanatory.

Darwinian evolution poses many problems to religion. First of all, the principle of descent with modification replaces the idea of a separate creation ex-nihilo of each species as well as supersedes the biological fixism with a dynamic-evolutionary concept of nature. The Biblical idea of an immediate divine creation out of nothing of vegetables and animals appears to be untenable in the light of the evolution theory. Analogously, after Darwin, fixism – according to which organisms remain unchanged since their original creation by God – is a very unlikely position to be held, because too many scientific discoveries disproved it. In the second place, scientific naturalism and positivism involved in the evolutionary theory do not allow for any external divine influence in the world. As only natural, material and observable facts are considered explanatory causes, in this view there is no place for supernatural interventions altering the structure and the laws of nature. In the third place, the theory of evolution undermines the ontological dualism between humans and animals. Human beings are not ontologically different from animals and, like all other species, they result from a long evolutionary process. But, above all, there is a further difficulty, that is the problem of evil in the evolutionary process. The main question is: why did a morally perfect and omnipotent God create a cosmos whose development is based on natural selection, a process that caused, is causing and will cause innumerable sufferings and deaths? Since God created the world out of nothing, he could have imposed a completely different system of natural laws not entailing a painful and long selective process. Related to this question there is the problem of anthropocentrism: if human beings are God’s favourite creatures, those for whom he created the universe as an environment to live, why did the human evolution take billions of years, causing uncountable pains to non-human beings? Why did God decide to sacrifice the lives of millions of innocent animals for the sake of human beings? God could have brought about a very different natural environment, that did not imply atrocious agonies for animals, or he could have created human beings without employing the painful system of evolution. Indeed, we should remember that, according to theism, this world and its structure are contingent, dependent on a divine decision. Therefore, not only they could have been very different, but God could intervene to change the ontological constitution of the world and its laws at any moment.

In summary, a super-naturalistic theism that contends: 1) Creation ex nihilo; 2) Fixism of natural species; 3) Ontological dualism and anthropocentrism; 4) Absolute divine omnipotence according to which God can bring about any logically possible state of affairs in the world, changing the structure of the world with super-natural interventions. Is in contrast with evolutionism. This conflict cannot be easily solved, even renouncing one or more of the beliefs quoted above – say 2 and 3, while keeping 1 and 4 – it remains problematic. As we have seen, given the creation of the world out of nothing and the absolute divine power, it is inexplicable why an omnipotent, perfectly good God decided to bring about a world by employing a painful process like that of natural evolution. In the case of maintaining only 1. and excluding 2, 3, 4, we are faced with a deistic position that admits the creation ex nihilo, but denies any further divine interventions in the world. God would be a sort of cosmic architect who limits himself to creating the marvellous machine of the world, setting its internal laws, and then letting it go by itself. Deism is problematic because depicts an indifferent deity, more similar to a clockmaker than to a benevolent, loving Father. It seems very hard to consider this unsympathetic and uncaring deity worthy of religious worship. If we, instead, rule out 1, 2, 3, and accept only 4, we cannot explain (again!) the problem of evil present in evolution. Indeed, if God is omnipotent and good, why did he create a world containing an evolutionary process which causes terrible sufferings to innocent animals? Why – at least – did not he prevent these sufferings? The apparently unsolvable tension between super-naturalistic theism and science can be unravel thanks to process philosophy, that provides an onto-metaphysical framework able to overcome these difficulties, without renouncing to a religious worldview and, at the same time, without abandoning the theory of evolution. But before seeing how it is possible to solve this conflict, we have to deal with some difficulties present in Darwinism.

3. Problems in the evolutionary theory

According to the theory of evolution, natural selection operates selecting among random genetic mutations those that are the most advantageous for the adaptation of the organisms to the environment. The randomness (or not adaptational character) of genetic mutations has two implications. Firstly, it rules out any teleology in evolution: if natural selection is the only working force in the process of evolution and all genetic variations randomly occur, then there is no purpose in nature. This perspective excludes not only the presence of any divine influence guiding natural evolution, but the notion of progress in itself, since it does not provide us with any standard for judging that a species is higher or better than the previous one.2 The criterion of adaptation refers to the immediate, local adaptation to a certain environment, without offering a principle to establish whether or not there is the occurrence of a global progress in the process of evolution. Furthermore, this view cannot explain the tendency towards complexity which characterises the evolutionary process: evolution generates forms of life ever more complex and elaborate, it proceeds from the simplest organisms to the highest mammals and vertebrates. If the process of evolution is exclusively driven by natural selection operating among random variations, how can the presence of increasing complexity be explained?

Secondly, the notion of random variations excludes any influence of the organism upon its own genes on the basis of its needs or desires. Since genetic modifications occur without a precise direction or target, the organism has not power in itself to affect – even only partially – its inner alterations.3 In other words, Darwinists and neo-Darwinists contend that changes in the genome cannot be influenced by a modification in the behaviour of organisms nor by their adaptive needs. However, different scientific experiments with DNA and bacteria do not support this idea;4 for example, bacteria E. Coli, in certain conditions, are able to digest lactose that would be normally indigestible for them by activating a genetic mutation. The problem related with the randomness of variations is that no one knows whether or not these variations happen randomly; this is a mere “speculation”5 necessary to maintain the purposeless character of natural evolution. Indeed, if modifications occurred following a purpose or an orientation, then natural selection would not be the only force at stake in evolution and something other than it would guide the process. This view is unacceptable for a scientific approach that rules out any supernatural influence in the world. As we have seen, the scientific naturalism and positivism in the evolutionary theory exclude the presence of supernatural causes as well as of non-sensory explanatory factors at the basis of evolution, opting for a materialistic, deterministic and atheistic position. But this view is not exempt from difficulties. First of all, materialism and determinism are unable to give a satisfactory explanation for phenomena like the interaction between mind and body or the emergence of consciousness from purely material causes. In the second place, there is the problem of freedom: how can a deterministic and materialistic evolutionary theory account for the presence of freedom in nature? We presuppose to be free and ascribe a certain degree of freedom to animals such as high vertebrates and mammals. It is hard to see how a deterministic and materialistic approach can explain the emergence – and especially the use – of freedom in humans and other animals.

Finally, there is the problem of gradualism that is not supported by fossils.6 According to Darwinian theory, evolution proceeds through tiny, gradual steps and does not allow for evolutionary jumps. If this were true, we would expect to find fossils of transitional species, instead there are few traces in the fossil record of the presence of intermediate organisms. Moreover, many species, such as angiosperms, suddenly emerged in the natural environment and remained static with the same characteristic for a long time before knowing a further change. Fossils show us that generally in nature, instead of a gradual accumulation of tiny changes, there is a sort of replacement in which new organisms emerge in a sudden way. Related with the stasis of natural species and gradualism, there is a chronological conundrum, too. Many species, like humans and cetaceans, developed very quickly in few millions of years; this seems to imply that several modifications have constantly accumulated in a short time. But how is it possible, if natural species have a tendency to remain static? To complicate the picture there is a conceptual problem7 in gradualism, that is the viability of transitional species (for example from amphibia to reptiles or from reptiles to birds). These intermediate organisms should have accumulated a huge number of different modifications at the same time, but this seems unlikely if we suppose that genetic mutations occur randomly. In summary, this brief excursus of some difficulties in the theory of evolution has showed how a positivistic, atheistic, sensory-based and materialistic approach is highly problematic. A different perspective – able to overcome the problems discussed above without referring to supernatural causation or external divine interventions – is to be searched. On the other hand, the reluctance of Darwinists to accept a theistic influence is, partly, well-founded; as we have seen in the previous section, a traditional religious conception – which contends fixism and anthropocentrism and considers God as the omnipotent, absolute creator ex nihilo of the cosmos – is in contrast with science and its discoveries. But the mistake made by Darwinian scientists is to equate religion with a super-naturalistic view; on the contrary, there is a different option, represented by process philosophy, that can offer a valid perspective to rethink the relationship between God and the world and therefore the relationship between religion and science.

4. Process philosophy, main traits

Process theodicy is a very fascinating and distinctive approach coming from the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. It proposes an innovative point of view from which to conceive the traditional divine attributes and the relationship between God and the world. According to the process philosophy, everything that is actual is a process,8 so the reality is considered as a dynamic system containing transformations, modifications and changes. The process philosophy aims at highlighting that the actualities which compose the world are in process, so «to be actual means to be a process»9. Actualities are the fundamental elements of reality, the ultimate ontological entities which the world is composed of, they are not things in the common sense – namely objects of our sensitive experience – but temporary events that occur, happen and then perish, leaving room for further events. These realities do not endure through time, once they have arisen and have reached completion, they simply cease to exist as actual beings, becoming past events. The world as we know it, namely a cosmos containing things like human souls, dogs, electrons or molecules that endure through time for a shorter or a longer period, is the result of the combination of a series of interrelated individual actualities. We can consider things as ‘societies’ of actualities. The element that characterises an actuality is the enjoyment. An actual entity is defined as an occasion of experience: the term actual refers to its temporary nature, since it is a moment existing in act, while the word experience means it is able to enjoy, to have experience. The notion of experience implies the ability both to actualise oneself and to interact with others and the environment.10 According to process philosophy every actuality is an experiencing reality: “Every unit of the process, whether at the level of human or of electronic events, has enjoyment”11, therefore “To be actual is to be an occasion of experience and hence an occasion of enjoyment”12. This position entails two relevant implications. First, there is not an ontological difference between human beings and other creatures in the world, they all share the capacity to enjoy. Process view clearly rejects the Cartesian dualistic distinction between subjects and non-experiencing objects, embracing a dynamic perspective, which considers enjoyment the distinctive feature of the reality as it is. Beings are different for the quality and type of enjoyment. For example, the experience of a dog is considered qualitatively (not ontologically) different in comparison to the human one. In other words, the difference does not concern the substantial nature of the thing involved, but the qualitative degree or dimension of its experience.

Second, as Whitehead said, experience does not presuppose consciousness, while consciousness presupposes experience, so there is experience even at an unconscious level, like such as atoms and cells. Indeed, the capability of enjoying does not require as a necessary condition neither the self-awareness nor the awareness of one’s own enjoyment, but, in the simplest creatures, it remains at an unconscious level as the ability to enjoy experiences and responding to them. An amoeba does not possess self-awareness; however, it is able to interact with the environment around, acquiring new experiences. So, we can say that the amoeba can enjoy. Furthermore, process philosophy rejects the Jew-Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in favour of the notion of creation out of chaos. God brought the world out of an initial chaotic state, he “shaped” the cosmos according to some eternal metaphysical principles and categories, with the aim to prompt it towards the highest level of beauty, harmony and complexity. Creation is an activity which gradually brings order in the primordial chaos, from the simplest forms of life to the most complex ones, in order to make the enjoyment of ever more rich and intense experiences possible. The original stuff which composes the world is not a static and passive raw material in God’s hands, like the clay for the potter, instead it embeds creativity.13 Each thing in the world, from electrons to human beings, is an embodiment of creativity, an exemplification of creative activity. Therefore, every being has power. This concept of creativity or creative power is twofold: it is the power of self-determination (or final causation) and to determine others (or efficient causation)14. The power of final causation implies the capacity, inherent to an actuality, of determining itself through a process called “concrescence”15. An actual occasion is an experiencing subject which feels or prehends other previous occasions, it receives these data and respond to them in a subjective way. The process of concrescence consists in the unification or inclusion of the various feelings and data experienced by the actuality. Thanks to this integration the occasion becomes a unified subject. When this process is completed the occasion perishes, it ceases to exist as a subjectivity and transmits some data and feelings to other actualities, becoming an object of experience for them. In other terms, it acquires objectivity. This last process is called “transition” and expresses the power of efficient causation or other-determination. There are important implications behind the notion of creativity. First, it implies a continuous dynamic movement, where “many become one” and “one becomes many”. On one hand, in the process of concrescence, the multiplicity of data coming from past occasions are unified in the experience of one subject. On the other hand, when this one perishes, it becomes an integrant part of further many by means of the process of transition.

Therefore, according to process view, an actuality has both the freedom to determine itself as a subject, integrating the data provided by past occasions, and the ability to determine others, becoming an object of experience for subsequent occasions. This mutual perception at the basis of the processes of concrescence and transition is non-sensory in kind, rooted in the primitive, unconscious capacity of perceiving others and the surrounding environment that is common to all beings in the world, from electrons to humans. Indeed, at the basis of the sensory perception – as an elaborate form of perception requiring the mediation of sensa – there is a more fundamental perceptive ability, namely the non-sensory perception (or causal efficacy in Whitehead’s words). Thanks to this basic perception an actuality can perceive other actualities as they exert a causation upon itself, that is it perceives others as causal efficacious, having an effect on its own experience: “Thus there is, in the mode of causal efficacy, a direct perception of those antecedent actual occasions which are causally efficacious both for the percipient and for the relevant events in the presented locus”16. “The perceptive mode of causal efficacy is to be traced to the constitution of the datum by reason of which there is a concrete percipient entity. Thus we must assign the mode of causal efficacy to the fundamental constitution of an occasion so that in germ this mode belongs even to organism of the lowest grade; while the mode of presentational immediacy requires the more sophistical activity of the later stages of process, so as to belong only to organisms of a relatively high grade”17. This notion of non-sensory perception along with the pan-relational conception, modify the way in which causality is conceived. Traditionally, causation is defined as an external relation, in which a cause acts from outside on an event or a situation, producing an effect. On the contrary, process view claims that we can influence others since we are prehended or felt by them, namely by means of internal relationships. Indeed, this act of prehension is an internal movement of integration in which we become part of the experience of others. In other words, an actuality can influence another one as object of its internal prehension, not as an external agent acting upon it. Consequently, the way in which an actual occasion chooses to develop itself (self-creation) will be determinant for the reception of other actualities, because its individual experience and growth will influence the future prehension of itself as object by others. Finally, each occasion gives its freely response to feelings and data coming from past occasions, it has not to repeat the same experiences or possibilities actualised by other actualities, rather its act is a creative work of synthesis. This appropriation of elements is a free and subjective process where the actuality can choose what and how to integrate and unify these elements in its own experience, creating a fresh synthesis. Acquired data do not unilaterally determine the identity of an actuality, rather they are the raw material from which that identity can be built. Consequently, the emergence of an unpredictable aspect or feature is always possible in the process of development of an occasion; final causation introduces novelty, new actualisations in the world, enriching the possibility of enjoyment.

5. The role of god

According to process philosophy, creativity is an ultimate metaphysical principle inherent to the nature of things. It is a necessary aspect of the universe, any world containing actual entities must present also this double-sided creativity. Creativity does not depend on God; it is beyond the divine will. The ultimate nature of creativity means God cannot “unilaterally affect any state of affairs in the world that is intrinsically possible”18. Namely, he cannot totally determine a being because, from one hand, it has the power to freely determine itself and, on the other hand, it is influenced by other beings, they too having the power of self-determination. According to the process view, God is the great orderer of the world, who coordinates creatures’ freedom and fosters the world towards ever more complex forms of life. Without God there would not be order nor a cosmos; indeed, in a world characterised by a perpetual dynamism, free occasions would conflict each other, not being able to combine themselves into a stable and cooperative system. Thus, some initial limitations and orientations are necessary in order to guarantee a minimal level of stability and coordination among entities. Therefore, process God does not possess a coercive power to bring about any logically possible situation or state of affairs, rather he has got a persuasive power, defined as the capacity to prompt creatures towards their best possibilities of existence. This divine act of persuasion is expressed in the initial aim that every creature receives from God; it is an initial urge luring creatures to their best opportunities, given their own life-context. However, the creature is not forced to follow the divine initial aim, it can choose alternatives other than those provided by God – its subjective aim – due to its inherent power of self-determination. This is because the initial aim is only an initial influence that does not totally determine the actuality, but orients it offering a series of possibilities within which the actuality can freely develop itself. The subjective aim chosen by a being can be identical with its initial aim, but also diverge from it, therefore God is unable to totally affect the decisions of his creatures. The hypothesis of creation out of chaos marks an important difference between the traditional concept of God and the process notion: while the traditional God of theism, if he wanted, could intervene in the world exercising a coercive all-determining power, for example revoking the creatural freedom, process deity cannot do this, because the freedom of creatures does not depend on his will. The power of self-determination and other-determination is not a divine gift, rather is an essential element inherent to the very nature of things, beyond God’s evocative power. God’s task, however, is not limited to that of a clockmaker of the world. God is constantly at work to lure the world towards the highest levels of Beauty. According to process philosophy, an experience is intrinsically good – good in itself regardless from its usefulness – if it is characterised by Beauty.19 Beauty is the union of harmony and intensity of experience: the more an experience is harmonious and intense, the more it is good. An experience is harmonious when the component parts are integrated in a balanced way, in order to limit or undo the contrasting feelings without diminishing their complexity and mutual interactions. Intensity can be defined as the absence of banal, trivial, not exciting experiences.

At the opposite side of intrinsic goodness, there is intrinsic evil, namely disharmony and triviality. The former concept refers to an experience in which elements are discordant and conflict each other; for example, in the case of mental and physical sufferings. Whitehead defines this kind of evil aesthetic destruction,20 it produces a discordant feeling that generates an inhibition between two or more feelings, preventing the resolution of the contrast into a superior unity. The stronger is the discordant feeling, the greater is the difficulty to overcome the conflicts among parts and, consequently, the sensation of pain. The latter notion can be defined in terms of boredom, banality, lack of novelty and excitement. Triviality is a relative evil, considered so only by comparison. This means that an experience is evil only if it is more banal than it should be: the experience of an animal is not evil just because it is less intense and complex in comparison with the human one, but a human experience is evil if it degenerates to an animal level.21 In other words, according to process philosophy, an experience is not trivial in itself, but only compared with the possibilities and abilities of the actuality involved. A simple, low level experience is not an evil as such, but if it could have been more complex and rich, then it is considered unnecessary and therefore trivial. If discord and triviality are evils, God must avoid them, prompting Beauty in the world. Process God seeks to overcome the presence of triviality and disharmony in the cosmos by improving the complexity and intensity of experiences. The divine work is not a definitive act, accomplished once for all, but a constant action on the world that expresses itself into the lure towards new and fresh enjoyments. After these clarifications, the reason why God brought a cosmos out of the primordial chaos is evident: he wanted to get over the presence of triviality in it, in order to bring beauty and intensity in the world. Indeed, in this chaotic state there was neither order nor societies and occasions occurred at random, having very banal experiences. Moreover, a chaotic condition is characterised by an absence of stability. Occasions acquire from all the contiguous actualities in a disordered way and their contributions cannot be combined in a serial order, with the effect of producing confusion and very trivial experiences. In summary, the introduction of order was necessary both to overcome the state of triviality and to allow the emergence of complexity and harmony. Without an ordered universe, it would be impossible for an occasion to receive data and organise them in a harmonious way, making its own experiences ever more intense and complex. Regarding the relationship between God and the world, process philosophy embraces panentheism. God includes the world in himself, but he is not coincident with it. God and the world are intimately connected from within: the world is not a separate reality from the divine one, on which God acts exercising an external influence, rather he acts as internal cause in it. God, including in himself the world, not only supports and rules over it, but he is a direct relationship with the cosmos. Employing a Hartshorne’s metaphor, we can say that God is the soul of the world and the world is his body: in the same way as we directly feel our body and flourish if our body flourishes and suffer if our body sufferers, God participates in every single experience that occurs, he is enriched by the enjoyment of positive values as well as undergoes the negative ones. All members are internal to God and in interaction with him. Therefore, the panrelational aspect characterises not only the relationships among worldly beings but also the relationship between God and the world. Process deity is not an external God, distant and separated from the cosmos, rather he is a sympathetic God who feels our feeling and is constantly in interaction with the world.

6. The resolution of the conflict between religion and science posed by the evolution theory

Facing the conflict between science and religion raised by the evolutionary theory, process philosophy must solve two main problems. First, it must offer a religious perspective and a conception of the relationship between God and the world compatible with the evolutionary system. Second, process philosophy must deal with the problem of the atrocious suffering caused by evolution. The questions to be answered are the following: why does the evolutionary process exist? Why does not God intervene to prevent at least the worst forms of suffering? The panentheistic, pan-experiential and non-sensory approach endorsed by process philosophy provides a framework to explain evolutionism without ruling out the presence of God and his activity in the world. Furthermore, its naturalistic theism makes process philosophy able to overcome the difficulties present in a materialistic, atheistic and positivistic interpretation of the theory of evolution. First of all, process view can solve the problem raised by the rejection of any supernatural influence in the process of evolution implied in the evolutionary theory. As we have seen, Darwinism rejects miraculous divine alterations of the world organisation as well as the presence of any teleology in evolution in order to preserve the stability and uniformity of natural laws. However, this position does not imply the denial of natural causal factors in nature, therefore if the divine influence is conceived in naturalistic terms, then it can be compatible with evolutionism. Indeed, process panentheism contends that the relationship between God and the world is natural in kind. Since God and the world are deeply interrelated and God is conceived as the soul of the world, the divine influence is completely natural, not external. It is not a sort of miraculous interruption of normal causal processes coming from outside, rather belongs to the structure of reality and works from the “inside” in a regular and constant way, providing ideal aims to be actualised:

“[…] What exists eternally is God-and-the-world, God and a plurality of finite existents. God is not the external creator of a wholly contingent world; God is essentially the soul of the universe. Because the normal causal relationship between God and finite beings is a natural, necessary relationship, it cannot be interrupted at will by God any more than by the creatures. Any divine causality on worldly beings would therefore have to be as fully a natural part of the process as any other causation. Divine causation could not be supernatural”22.

The naturalistic theism endorsed by process philosophy allows us to admit the presence of God’s activity without considering it as an extra-ordinary intervention breaking the fixity of the natural system. This position introduces a form of religious theism that, while admitting a teleology in evolution, excludes any supernatural factors in accordance with Darwinism.23 Panexperientialism and panrelationality provide a different interpretation of evolution as a dynamic process whose explanatory causes are not limited to natural selection and random genetic mutations, but include the divine influence and the behaviour of organisms as well as their responses to the environment. According to the panexperientialism embraced by process philosophy, all actualities which compose the world are occasions of experience internally influencing each other and open to God’s influence as well. Since relationships belong to their inner essence, causality is internal not external: each actual occasion can influence others (becoming an object of their prehension) and can be influenced by other actualities (integrating them into its own process of concrescence); hence it inherits both physical pre-existing forms and new potentialities to be actualised. However, actual occasions are also affected by God. The divine influence takes the form of a sort of “appetition”, a lure towards the realisation of certain possibilities; this kind of causality, being rooted in a primitive, non-sensory perception, does not necessarily require self-consciousness nor the awareness of the activity of God in the world, but acts as an attraction for creatures towards their best opportunities of enjoyment and realisation:

“Once we recognize that we have non-sensory perception, we can believe that we perceive God, which means that God influences our experience. Our knowledge of values such as truth, beauty and justice can be understood as rooted in divine persuasion, through which God seeks to lure us to actualize these values. If all things in the world are, or are composed of, moments of experience, furthermore, we can understand how God, as the all-inclusive, omnipresent experience, can directly influence all beings. Although beings whose experience does not rise to the level of self-consciousness, or even consciousness, cannot reflect upon the meaning of truth, beauty and justice, they can nonetheless be subject to divine persuasion in terms of ideal values that they are capable of actualizing. Divine influence upon human and nonhuman beings can thereby be regarded as similar in kind”24.

This panexperientialist view can explain evolution as a process of internal changes towards more complex creatures: past actualities affect the present ones, providing concrete forms and models to their experience, while God offers them ideal aims, novel potentialities to be realised. Thus, the causal factors in evolution are not confined to natural selection and random (genetic) modifications, rather the panrelational and panexperientialist position admits other kinds of causes, that can solve the problems raised by the idea of natural selection operating on random variations as exclusive force in nature. For example, as Ernst Mayr noted,25 the behaviour of animals is central in modifying their genetic heritage towards innovation. Furthermore, as we have seen, a change in the environment can stimulate bacteria to produce new genetic modifications in order to respond to this environmental variation. It follows that also the choices and behaviours of animals can affect evolution and its path.26 In summary, evolution is the product of interacting forces: natural selection, the divine influence and the behavioural response of organisms to their environment, generating inner modifications. Moreover, the reference to causal factors, other than material, observable causes can overcome the materialistic and positivistic view in the evolution theory along with its difficulties.27 The causal efficacy expressed in the mode of non-sensory perception reveals that causality can operate on different levels and it is not limited to the action of an external, material object upon another. Materialism and positivism are reductive principles of explanation of natural phenomena that can be replaced by a more sophisticated perspective, able to solve the traditional problems posed by a materialistic/positivistic account of reality, such as the dualism between mind and body or the emergence of consciousness from purely material and inert factors.28 Process view can overcome the difficulties in gradualism, because – even if it contends that evolution is a gradual path and the divine influence is constant – admits jumps in the evolutionary process. The divine influence internally works as a persuasion towards an ideal to be realised; it is not a coercion, but requires the cooperation of creatures. Therefore, God’s lure has not an immediate visible effect on the behaviour of creatures or on their structural organisation; the way and the time in which this impulse is realised are variable, depending on the natural abilities and the life-conditions of the actuality involved in the process. The effects and consequences of the divine influence are not completely predictable in details nor occur systematically and regularly; some possibilities take more time than others, or some events are actualised very quickly, while others require long phases before taking place. This situation explains why evolution is a long, gradual process from the simplest form of life to the most complex ones.

God constantly acts in the world with his persuasive power but – given the inner creatural freedom and the variations in the environmental conditions over time – the visible effects of this persuasion are not immediate nor regular. New features gradually emerge as potentialities or ideal forms and can take millions of years to be realised phenotypically, but “when that process does finally occur, the organism might suddenly incorporate many more or less radical changes. A saltation will have occurred in the visible world. The divine activity lying behind it, however, had been entirely gradualistic”29. In other words, the process is internally gradual with an accumulation of modifications that remain at the level of pure potentialities, but, when the ideal form is physically actualised, a visible, radical change is registered at the external level.30 This external saltational and internal gradualistic conception of evolution has its scientific correspondent in the theory of punctuated equilibria.31 The concept of Beauty endorsed by process philosophy provides a standard for defining progress in evolution.32 The divine aim is to bring forth in the world ever more complex creatures, able to enjoy ever more complex forms of Beauty (namely ever more complex, intense and harmonious experiences). Accordingly, we can see a progressive movement in the evolutionary process, from simple organisms to more complex ones. This criterion is not in contrast with that of the survival of the fittest, rather it stresses the fact that the principle of survival is not the unique standard from which to evaluate the process of evolution.33 The survival criterion – based on the principle of adaptation – is acceptable, but reductive too: according to it bacteria are among the fittest organisms in the world. However, even if humans are not as well adapted as bacteria, they are able to enjoy high level experiences not comparable to those of bacteria. In other words, also the enjoyment of ever more complex experiences should be a criterion to judge evolution and, therefore, a standard for progress. The dualism between humans and animals – contended by the traditional theological conception – is ruled out by process view. Since all creatures are societies of actual occasions, there is not an ontological difference between human beings and other species, rather they differ at organizational level. The degree of organization of an ameba is different from that of a dog or a human: given the organizational structure of the actualities that compose an ameba, it is able to enjoy a very low level of experiences compared to other animals. It means that each species does not differ ontologically, but for the ability to enjoy complex, intense and harmonious experiences. In other words, process philosophy embraces an organizational duality instead that an ontological dualism. This view is consistent with the evolutionary theory that rejects a dualistic conception of humans as ontologically different from animals. The same can be said for anthropocentrism. The idea that the world has been created ad hoc for the sake of human beings, as God’s favourite creatures, is denied by process philosophy. The purpose of creation is not to bring about an environment suitable for the moral and spiritual human development, rather it is to promote the raise of ever more complex creatures able to enjoy intense and rich experiences. Therefore, the evolution of humanity represents a phase, a moment of a constant, progressive process. Contending this view, process philosophy is coherent with Darwinism that considers the natural world a product of a long evolution in which humans are a step, a momentary stage, rather than an already-given cosmos created for the sake of humanity.

Finally, we have to address the question of evil in the evolutionary process. Process theology – by rejecting the traditional conception of God’s omnipotence and the creation ex nihilo in favour of the creation out of chaos of a cosmos in which creatures have the inner power of creativity, beyond the divine will – considers the evolutionary process a necessary means. In other words, process God does not possess an all-determining power to bring about any logically possible state of affairs and the creative power at the basis of the relationships among beings does not allow him to create instantaneously complex creatures like humans. Elaborate forms of life require as their basic condition the stable permanence of simpler forms, therefore a complex world like the actual one can arise and develop only through a long, step-by step process. Indeed, there is a sort of order among the existential possibilities, each new level of existence needs the stable actualization of inferior levels as its support and basic condition. Only when a certain level reaches a certain stability it is possible to move up to the next step, in a progressive evolution towards ever more complex forms of life:

“There is evidently an order among the possibilities themselves. They cannot be actualized in the world in simply any order; rather, some become real possibilities only after others have been actualized. Hence, at one stage certain novel possibilities are actualized for the first time. If they are then repeated, they become part of the order of the world. As such, they provide the conditions for other novel possibilities to become actualized. And so on”34. “For example, living cells could not have emerged directly out of an arrangement of enduring individuals as primitive as protons and electrons. Those lowly creatures cannot contribute the types of data necessary for the emergence and sustenance of living occasions of experience. The intermediate stages of atoms and molecules were needed”35.

Since each new advance can be realised after the stabilisation of the previous stages, evolution is a gradual process. Once some actualisations are repeated and organised into a stable system, acquiring the power to influence others, it is possible to jump to the next phase; when also such a phase will become stable, it will provide the bases for a further development, in a progressive movement towards ever greater complexity. Therefore, the process of evolution is the only possible means available to God for promoting and supporting the development of the world. It follows also that God has no responsibility for the evil in the evolutionary process. Since he has not determined the inner structure of the world and does not possess an all-determining power, God has not the power to intervene to prevent, if not all, almost the worst forms of evil caused by natural selection. His power is evocative, so that he can foster creatures towards their best possibilities of enjoyment, but cannot unilaterally control their development. In conclusion, process philosophy provides a worldview that is religious as well as naturalistic to overcome the conflict between science and religion raised by the theory of evolution. Evolutionism does not imply atheism, materialism and positivism and can be harmonised with religion. Process position depicts a cosmos in accordance with the main traits of evolutionism without abandoning a religious view in which the creative power of organisms and the divine influence play an important role.

7. Abstract

The evolutionary theory revolutionised the way of conceiving the system of nature and its functioning, but it is not exempt from problems, especially with regard to the conflict between the religious super-naturalistic view and the scientific one. The issues at stake are primarily the tension between divine creationism and the process of evolution, the problem of animal suffering as well as the religious idea of an active presence of God in the world that is in contrast with the atheistic materialism endorsed by evolutionism. The aim of this paper is threefold; firstly, I will stress some points of the dispute between religion and science caused by the theory of evolution with particular attention to the following points: the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the fixism of natural species, the divine influence on natural processes, anthropocentrism and the problem of evil in evolution. Secondly, I will point out some philosophical and scientific difficulties in the evolutionary theory, such as the reference to natural selection as the only force operating in the process of evolution, the randomness of genetic modifications, the problems posed by gradualism and by a materialistic view of the system of nature. Thirdly, I will suggest a philosophical solution to these difficulties, represented by process philosophy and its metaphysical background. Dealing with the conflict between science and religion raised by the evolutionary theory, process philosophy faces two main problems. On one hand, it should offer a religious view and a conception of the relationship between God and the world compatible with the evolutionary system. On the other hand, there is the problem of the atrocious sufferings caused by evolution to animals. The questions to be answered are the following: why does the evolutionary process exist? Why does not God intervene to prevent at least the worst forms of suffering? The panentheistic, panexperiential and non-sensory approach endorsed by process philosophy provides a worldview that explains evolution without ruling out the presence of God and his activity in the world. Furthermore, this naturalistic theism makes process philosophy able to overcome the difficulties posed by a materialistic, atheistic and positivistic interpretation of evolutionism.

  1. For a more detailed discussion see David R. Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism. Overcoming the conflict, Albany: State University of New York Press 2000, ch. 8, pp. 241-310. ↩︎

  2. Ibi, pp. 262-264. ↩︎

  3. Ibi, pp. 252-253. ↩︎

  4. Ibi, pp. 272.-276. ↩︎

  5. Ibi, p. 253. ↩︎

  6. Ibi, p. 277-283. ↩︎

  7. Ibi, pp. 283-285. ↩︎

  8. For the notion of process see: Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, David Griffin - Donald Sherburne ed., New York: The Free Press 1978, pp. 208-214. ↩︎

  9. John Cobb - David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976, p.14. ↩︎

  10. For the notion of experience see A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, cit., p. 145. ↩︎

  11. J. Cobb - D. Griffin, Process Theology, op. cit., p. 16. ↩︎

  12. Ibi, p. 17. ↩︎

  13. See A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, cit., p. 21. ↩︎

  14. See D. Griffin, God, Power and Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2004, p. 277. See also J. Cobb - D. Griffin, Process Theology, op. cit, pp. 14-16. ↩︎

  15. See A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, cit., pp. 211-214. ↩︎

  16. Ibi, p. 169. ↩︎

  17. Ibi, p. 172. ↩︎

  18. J. Cobb - D. Griffin, Process Theology, op. cit., p.280. ↩︎

  19. See D. Griffin, God, Power and Evil, pp. 282-285. ↩︎

  20. A. N. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, London: Cambridge University Press 1933, p. 330. ↩︎

  21. Ibi, p. 284. ↩︎

  22. D. Griffin, Evil Revisited, cit., p. 77. ↩︎

  23. D. Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism, cit., p. 292-293. ↩︎

  24. Ibi, p. 79. ↩︎

  25. Quoted in D. Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism, cit., p. 297. ↩︎

  26. See ibi, pp. 298-299. ↩︎

  27. Ibi,296-297. ↩︎

  28. For a deepening of these issues see ibi, ch. 6, pp, 137-178. ↩︎

  29. D. Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism. A Process Philosophy of Religion, Ithaca: Cornwell University Press 2001, p. 216. ↩︎

  30. See D. Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism, cit., pp. 298-299. ↩︎

  31. For deepening this issue see ibi, pp. 282-283 and pp. 304-305. ↩︎

  32. Ibi, p. 295. ↩︎

  33. Ibi, p. 300-301. ↩︎

  34. Ibi, p.66. ↩︎

  35. D. Griffin, God, Power and Evil, cit., p. 295. ↩︎