Monday, March 16, 2009

Emergence

A lot has been written about the evolution of life, but just what is it that causes life to emerge from inert matter? What drives atoms and molecules together into the complex forms we know as DNA, proteins, cells, tissues, and organs? How do atoms and molecules arrange themselves into entire organisms that live and move and even think?

Scientists call these “big questions” or "grand challenges," but, so far, we do not have a satisfactory answer to any of them. We do, though, have a name for the process by which this miraculous thing happens: we call it Emergence.

What could be a bigger question than how life emerges from molecules? Well, how about this one: Where did the molecules come from?

Physicists have recently determined that the sum total of all the atoms and molecules in all the planets, stars and galaxies accounts for only 4% of all the “stuff” of which the universe is made. About 22% of the rest is something called Dark Matter while the remaining 74% is Dark Energy, neither of which is well understood.

Astrophysicists say that, at some point in our universe’s history, ordinary matter emerged from dark matter and energy in a process somewhat like cooling a pool of water to 32 degrees. The "ice" that forms is the ordinary matter solidifying from this watery, mysterious dark “stuff.” The newly solid ordinary matter goes on to collect into stars and galaxies and planets—and eventually us.

To me, this is miraculous. Both the fact that it happened and the mechanism by which it happened are awe-inspiring. How could a thinking person not be awe-struck by the complex and intricate process that happened in just such a way that you can now sit here and read this essay with eyes and brains made of molecules that used to be dark matter?

The late Alan Watts, a mystic, one-time Episcopal priest and prolific author (among other things), described the planet Earth as “peopling” in the same way that an apple tree apples. He imagined visitors from outer space, out touring the neighborhood and looking for signs of intelligent life, but bypassing the early earth with not so much as a glance, saying, “It’s just a bunch of rocks.”

Several million years later when they come around again, they stop, pointing and say, “We thought this planet was just a bunch of rocks—but, look! It’s peopling. It must be intelligent after all.” [Alan Watts, “The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” Random House, 1966]

So where is God in this? Is God the explanation for all the gaps in the scientific creation story? (Just what is that dark matter, anyway?) Intelligent Design advocates would have us believe that life is irreducibly complex, and that this proves the existence of God, but science is making progress toward understanding what complexity is all about and where it comes from.

A “God of the gaps” who enters our faith only when science has not progressed far enough to answer all the questions will ultimately disappoint us, since the gaps will eventually be filled.

I confess that I once was very bothered by the seeming gap between science and religion, but I have come to see the two approaches to “asking the big questions” as equally valid, and to understand my own self as one whole, integrated human being who can marvel at the miraculousness of life in all its minute detail and simultaneously praise the One who made all this possible.

In my view, God cannot be separated from life. Divinity infuses every part of life: God is in our bodies and minds, in our cells—even in our molecules! I believe the universe is alive and we have been blessed with brains that allow us to know this.

I leave you with a quote from Rumi [“Teachings of Rumi,” Andrew Harvey, Ed., Shambhala Press, 1999], a great poet who seemed, every day, to catch a glimpse of the majesty of God and think to write it down:

How can I — or anyone else — ever cease being astounded
That He whom nothing can contain is contained in the heart?

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