I recently completed a blog series, What Does it Mean to be Human?, in which I offered some reaction to and critique of E. O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. Though Wilson’s book purportedly is about the evolution of humans, he offers a fair amount of anti-religious polemic in his book. So the book ends up being as much about his philosophical beliefs as it does about science. Wilson for example writes:
“By what force of evolutionary dynamics, then, did our lineage thread its way through the evolutionary maze? What in the environment and ancestral circumstance led the species through exactly the right sequence of genetic changes? The very religious will of course say, the hand of God. That would have been a highly improbable accomplishment even for a supernatural power. In order to bring the human condition into being, a divine Creator would have had to sprinkle an astronomical number of genetic mutations into the genome while engineering the physical and living environments over millions of years to keep the archaic prehumans on track. He might as well have done the same job with a row of random number generators. Natural selection, not design, was the force that threaded this needle.” (E.O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth, Kindle Loc. 852-58)
We read in what is supposedly a science book about the limits of Wilson’s theological imagination. Wilson sets serious limits to what God is or could be and then dismisses his created god as non-existent. I was struck by something I read which came from the Fourth Century, attributed nowadays by scholars to “Ambrosiaster“, a name given to an otherwise unknown 4th Century writer but sometimes wrongly attributed to St. Ambrose. The ideas of God offered by Wilson were already being encountered by and dismissed by Christians of the 4th Century. Abrosiaster writes:
“The wisdom of the flesh is, in the first place, astrological calculation presumptuously undertaken by humans and, secondly, delight in visible things. These activities are hostile to God because they assert that events can occur only according to the principles of this world and thus equate the lord of the elements and the creator of the universe with the things that were made. They deny that God caused a virgin to bear a child and the bodies of the dead to rise again. It is foolish, they claim, to say that God would do things that transcend human understanding, and for this reason they insist that God did not do them. O prudent people, belonging to this world, who think that God cannot do anything other than what the creation made by God can do and who think that God is like creatures.” (quoted in Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators , edited by J. Patout Burns Jr. , Kindle Loc. 3945-50)
Indeed if God cannot transcend human understanding, He is not God at all. The trouble in Wilson’s thinking is he cannot allow for there to exist a being which transcends human understanding. Wilson is a materialist and so cannot accept any notion that there is a being not limited by materialism. In the end he rejects not the Creator of Genesis 1-2 but only the god which he created in his own image. As our writer known as Ambrosiaster points out 1700 years ago, if you think God cannot do anything more than any earthly creature can do or think, then it is the limitation of your own thinking which is the problem, not the existence of God. Modern science has not added something new to the debate, but simply repeats a philosophical assumption that dates from pre-scientific times: namely, “that events can occur only according to the principles of this world.” Materialism is a pre-scientific philosophical assumption, not the discovery of modern scientific rationalism.