Emerging life

[This is an ‘emerging’ draft. Comments are invited.]

Note: The historical part of this paper draws heavily on ‘Emerging God’ by Philip Clayton available at The conclusions about God in the second half are different to his.


In the Western tradition natural science, or its predecessor natural philosophy, has served as an epistemological framework for discussing the existence and nature of God for many centuries. St. Augustine, for example, argued that Plato’s forms needed to be located somewhere, and the mind of God was the natural place to put them. Since any successful science requires the existence of forms, there must be a God to eternally think them. No God, no science.

Aristotelian science, dominant in the West for nearly 1,500 years, also required a God, at least according to St. Thomas. Consider the famous doctrine of the "four causes." From Aristotle to (roughly) Galileo, "to do science" meant to discover the four causes of a thing. The forms or "formal causes" require a divine mind in which they can be located. It is evident that matter, or the material cause of a thing, is not eternal, so it must be created, and by God. Efficient causes, such as the sculptor who transforms a block of marble into a statue of Athena, exist separate from God but since they are contingent, they too require God as their ultimate cause. As well as being the ultimate origin, God is also the final cause or goal toward which everything develops, for God must be the one who brings about the final outcome of the earthly process in accordance with the divine plan. Again, it seemed, if there’s no God, there’s no science.

Even as late as the 18th century, Isaac Newton offered a compelling line of argument that appeared to lead from science to God. If it worked, the science of his day would still provide ‘spiritual information’ about the nature of God. Newton’s laws seemed to account for the interactions of all bodies in the universe. Newton realized that applying these laws required an ultimate, unchanging framework of ‘absolute space’ and ‘absolute time’ within which bodies moved. This framework could be located only with God as the eternal object of God’s thought, or at least it could exist only with the concurrence of God’s will and as a reflection of the divine nature. So Newton’s laws, perhaps the greatest insight in the history of physics, appeared to communicate something of the nature of God.

Connecting science or ‘natural philosophy’ and theology became progressively more difficult in the modern era. Beginning shortly after Newton and continuing until recently, most of the dominant scientific models left little room for the sort of theological connections we have been considering. The explosion of scientific knowledge, the predictive accuracy of mathematical physics, the emergence of evolutionary science based on random variation rather than on purpose, the controlling paradigm of reductionism, the dominance of materialist explanations and assumptions: all of these developments made science-based theological speculations difficult and, in the eyes of many, impossible.


In the past few decades, and especially since the turn of this Century, we have seen an important new development in science-based reflection about the nature of God. The concept of emergence has gathered momentum, giving rise to new speculation about God. Do these new developments in science enable us to say anything about God?

In one sense it’s a truism to note that things emerge. Once there was no universe and then, after the Big Bang, there was an exploding world of stars and galaxies. Once the earth was unpopulated and later it was teeming with primitive life forms. Once there were apes living in trees and then there were Mozart, Einstein and Gandhi. But new empirical studies of emergence in the context of General Systems Theory and especially the theory of Complex Adaptive Systems move far beyond truisms.

A growing number of scientists and theorists of science working to formulate fundamental laws that explain how cosmic evolution produces more and more complex things and behaviors, how complexity arises from less complex forms. Especially significant is the way studies of complexity and emergence are breaking the stranglehold that reductionist explanations have had on science.

These scientists turn our attention the inherent tendency toward an increase in complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. They see this tendency through time. As more complex forms emerge, the less complex entities do not disappear, so General Systems theorists can speak of a hierarchy of complexity corresponding with scientific investigations through physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, ecology, and cosmology (e.g. Boulding 1956). Does this new science tell us about the existence and the nature of God?

Traditional Christian theology looked backward. It postulated God as the cause of all things. If God stood at the beginning and designed a universe intended to produce Jesus, then God would have to use deterministic laws to reliably bring about the desired outcomes. Where the deterministic processes, on their own, failed to produce a theologically acceptable world, God would have to intervene into the natural order, setting aside the original laws in order to bring about different, non-lawful outcomes. Divine action included the working of miracles, the breaking of laws; and God became the being whose nature and actions are opposed to nature.

Emergence, in contrast, suggests a different model of the God-world relationship. In this model God sets in motion a process of ongoing creativity. The laws are not deterministic laws but ‘stochastic’ or probabilistic. Although regularities exist, the exact outcomes are not determined in advance. More and more complex states of affairs arise in the course of natural history through an open-ended process. With the increase in complexity new entities emerge. The physical world emerges from quantum particles, molecules and chemical processes emerge out of atomic structures, simple living organisms out of complex molecular structures. Then complex multi-cellular organisms emerge, then societies of animals with new emergent properties at the interactional level, then conscious beings with abstract thought and symbolic language, who interact in communities to enable symbolic culture and technology to emerge. In recent decades a new global symbolic culture has emerged with the Internet and global communication.

Where, in all this, is God? Let us approach this question by asking what we can say about ‘God’ through empirical observation. We can assert that ‘God’ is a word. A word hallowed by long usage, one we are accustomed to and which has a place in our language and culture (Leunig 2007). This does not imply independent real existence, as ‘unicorn’ is also a word. As well in a dictionary and everyday English usage, we can find God in art, poetry, and songs. God exists as an element in our culture.

This understanding has two implications. One is that God did not create us; we made God in emergent social and cultural processes. Secondly, God is as real as any other emergent cultural element. Physics, football and banking have emerged in socio-cultural processes. If they are real, then God is also real. God is an idea in people’s heads, an image in sculpture, poetry and art, and a dynamic cultural element. Because complexity and emergence science is not reductive, we cannot say God is ‘just’ or ‘only’ an idea in people’s heads. The emergent God is more than any single attribute and more than the sum of its parts.

When God first emerged is lost in history. Monotheism may have emerged in Persia or Egypt, roughly 1,500 years ago, or may have had several origins. Wherever and whenever God emerged, it is clear (as the Old Testament witnesses) that God has changed and developed through history, and has different manifestations or forms in various socio-cultural contexts. God is affected by human history.


We can imagine that, if the idea that God is completely immanent and emergent becomes widespread, that God will not only lose a supernatural nature, all transcendence of God may be lost. We may come to see God as an important cultural element, but not having any wider significance than the culture which created God.

Another view is that as the world develops more complex structures, and as humans understand more about the nature of the world and complexity, humans may become more Godlike In this view, ‘divinity’ is a property that the world develops in the course of emergent evolution. However, emergent structures are greater than the elements from which they arise. The whole God is more than the sum of the elements from which God emerges. We can hold that God is both socially constructed and transcendent. God is a cultural artifact, and more than that.

Then there are the social and political implications of an emergent God. The first Implication is that a doctrine of God inspired by emerging scientific models is speculative rather than dogmatic, not fixed in stone but open to new information and revisions. It is a dialogue partner in the truth-seeking process, not a final authority or arbiter of truth.

As we realize that God emerges in interaction amongst us, we become aware that each of us is in some sense shares in the divine; and our striving for friendship, compassion and peace is part of the unfolding of God’s purpose.


Boulding, K. E. (1956). General systems theory: The skeleton of science. Management Science, 2(3), 197-208. Clayton, P. (2004). Emerging God. Religion-online Retrieved 3 Sept, 2008, from Leunig, M. (2007, June 9). Looking for Loki in all the wrong places. The Age, from