Re: front loading; was Re: [asa] on miracles

From: Jim Armstrong <>
Date: Mon Mar 16 2009 - 13:23:48 EDT
[Don - I intended to post this one as well. I guess failing to do so is an artifact of late hours and senior state! :-)  ]

I appreciate this exchange.

I think I understand exactly how your "objection remains theological and personal: I think it makes God less personally involved than he actually is." That is of course the tension. [Deep breath...while pondering whether to continue].] It does indeed raise serious questions about deeply held understandings, for example the accuracy or degree of God's active sustaining of Creation. An absence of moment-to-moment active realization of Creation helps resolve some of the God-as-cause-of-bad-things issues, rendering them as a natural artifact of the workings of Creation, rather than forcing us to deal with the motivational "why" of horrendous (from our perspective) consequences of naturally occurring events like avalanches and errant asteroids. Otherwise, under God's active and involved watch, these are presumably preventable unless punitive or for some inscrutable purpose.

[Another deep breath]

Hopefully not over-responding to your partial comment in italics above, I fully take in, resonate, and respect the "I think ... actually is" portion. But for me - to put it in steely-eyed and unvarnished form - front loading and lesser involvement in the physical aspects of Creation might help explain a certain lesser interaction and responsiveness that in balance (as near as I can make out) has been my experience and observation, though I have wished and even trusted it to be greater. But I have also - in time - had to recognize that those were/are distinctly personal, human wishes, whether valid or not, and that the perspective of God is universe-size and then some, reaching quite beyond the limitations of my understanding or wishes. So I am left with some greater (and more uncomfortable) sense of the enormous gap between my kind and that of God, and had to give grudging way to more - a lot more - agnosticism than I would really want. The upshot of that is that a certain dispassionate (as best I can manage) scrutiny of experience and observation looms a little larger. In short, these seem not to be always consonant with the histories and propositions offered routinely (and sometimes all too glibly) out of the orthodoxy and tradition I have known and mostly accepted for the greater part of my lifetime.

Does this mean that I push God to a back-stage or even off-stage position. Absolutely not, despite what I understand it might sound like. Instead, it seems to have led me to a bit of a different take on where God's interest and activity might lie, in short in the opportunities and choices and relationships that are part of living up to the potential that we as our kind of beings are apparently capable of. We can as a minimum bind the individual and even national wounds that occur from the natural workings of nature (as well as man's machinations). We have the creative impulse, allowing us to dream, and transform those dreams turn into reality, both personally and in our physical context. We have the powerful capacity for redemption in so many ways, restoring through medicine, restoring from descent into the lowest places in life, helping another become become more than they ever dreamed for themselves, allowing the music to flow unimpaired as well from the physically challenged and those different in other ways from ourselves, and actively opposing the negative and destructive faces of the same freedoms and abilities and choices that make enrich our lives, both individually and in community. And so much more, in thoughts and actions both grand and small.

A friend of mine might respond (as he once did), "But the secular humanists do THAT!" So is this way of framing this aspect of our interrelationship with God "merely humanistic"? I don't think so. It might even amount to an unintentional slur. "I think" this is the real field of dynamic and interest to God, not anything so trivial as keeping all the cosmological plates spinning. It seems in keeping with Micah 6:8, that I've found helpful to reflect on over time. "I think" the cosmology, whether micro- or macroscopic is for the most part, or even entirely, merely backdrop or context for the real emergence of interest. "I think" that the potentialities of the preceding paragraph are the real articulations of divine intent, though they have a certain physical potentiality analogue in the substance and character of the cosmos (a la Howard Van Till, in limited form). "I think" that it is in the arena of life and living in community that the spark of divinity brightens - the "image of God" if you will - through that exquisitely altruistic and creative potentiality resides within each one of us. In a sense, counter-intuitively, it elevates our status in creation, but not because of what we are as some finest and ultimate product of Creation, but because of our privilege of participation and our potentiality, ...our place in the ever-evolving tapestry of divine intent.

Once I came to engage and more fully appreciate that notion of potentiality, it seems to have become almost impossible for me to loosen my grip on it. It is truly ubiquitous in Creation, perhaps even to the point of constituting something akin to the "logos" of  the physical universe. Which is more stunning, creation of a static universe, or one that embodies a continuous unfolding of newness, a continuous ongoing realizing of potentiality as a part of the fundamental framework of divine intent?

Still, that ubiquity transcends the physical as well, whether in measure or totally. And so the principle extends yet further.

The complementary idea of redemption - in its many realizable forms - including OUR capacity for redemption - has similarly acquired "I think" status for me as a part of that same fundamental framework of divine intent.

"I think" mere cosmology, and a need for God to actively sustain it, is what recedes into the background.

But then, this is still a work in progress...I hope.

JimA [Friend of ASA]

Don Winterstein wrote:
After further thought I think your position is very similar if not identical to (what I recall of) Van Till's.  And of course this is not necessarily atheistic.  Atheists can't explain why anything exists, for example.  It's a perfectly rational view of the world, as I understand it.  But see my additional response to your initial message.  (I thought it was worth sharing with everybody.) 
----- Original Message -----
From: Jim Armstrong
To: Don Winterstein
Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2009 8:24 AM
Subject: Re: front loading; was Re: [asa] on miracles

Yes, but I do not subtract out initial cause. The lessening of God's active involvement in the ongoing universe is a viable notion when thinking along these lines. And that does certainly does have implications with respect to both comfort and tradition. But it does not of necessity wind up in the atheist camp. I struggle with the questions(s) related to the degree of involvement of God, but at the end of the day, my reasons for struggling seem to be more about what I would prefer than what appears to make sense (to me) from observation. Among the questions for me was why the universe is so large, and what that immensity brings into play. Another was the unfeeling capacity of raw nature to inflict harm without conscience (and the whole theodicy question). In time, these sorts of things led me essentially to the question about God's relative interest in purely physical vs other aspects of creation..

I encountered Howard Van Till (sorry for the misspelling earlier) a few years ago as I was leaning strongly along these lines. I found in him a fellow traveler who shared much of what I was coming to prefer as a working model. I think we essentially share the robustness notion.


Don Winterstein wrote:
Response to Dave:   Our existence proves the mass extinctions helped or at least didn't significantly hurt our bio-trajectory.  Paleontologists have pointed out that the destruction of the big dinosaurs was helpful or necessary for enabling mammal dominance.  So it's quite believable that the extinctions worked to our advantage, though we'll probably never know how in any detail. 
The part I choke on with this as a front-loading model is that God presumably had to control the Big Bang in such a finely detailed way that everything worked out to lead explicitly to us.  I can swallow the physical parts--i.e., formation of galaxies & planets, etc.--as direct consequences of the Big Bang, but to contend the Big Bang controlled biological development seems far-fetched, especially in view of the extinction events. 
Response to Jim:  I think we agree that the spiritual aspects are more important than the physical, but the reality is that we're physical beings.  Because of this our physical origin is of considerable interest if not importance.  It is in fact important for my theological views. 
Your version of front loading incorporates robustness as key.  Robustness for you means that, because the world does a "huge number" of experiments, one of them is likely to succeed.  God could have arranged the number of experiments to be large enough to more or less guarantee success. 
Actually, if you subtract out any reference to God, this model is identical to that of the atheistic scientist.  So I can't object to it on logical or scientific grounds, and I can't say that I have difficulty taking it seriously.  My objection remains theological and personal: I think it makes God less personally involved than he actually is. 
Is your robustness the same as what Van Till with his RFEP meant by robustness?  Somehow I got a different impression. 
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:39 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] on miracles

Taking off from your approach rather than Jim's, how do you know that the nova did not produce a cosmic ray that altered a gene to produce a desired end? This is at the "micro" end. Also, could the extinction of the dinosaurs have a beneficial effect in producing us? This is at the "macro" end. I know of no way to exhaust the possible positive and desirable effects of all the various events down through the ages. As things have applied to me, I now recognize that matters that seemed devastating at the time have had distinctly beneficial effects in the long run.
Dave (ASA)
On Thu, 12 Mar 2009 07:59:26 -0700 Jim Armstrong <> writes:
[Ooops, I meant to post this. JimA]

If you think "deal with the amount of detail necessary", then you may have missed something about the front-loading concept. For many "front loaders" at least, the understanding is not that an immense clockwork was put into motion to produce exactly what we are, along with our particular contexts, both intentionally quite specific in form and function. That idea embodies the notion of a single trajectory leading to us, a tad presumptuous and limiting in my view, considering the immensity of Creation.

Instead, the front-loading understanding is that an immense and dynamic creation was brought into being, with the capacity for huge numbers of potential developmental trajectories, one of which is the trajectory of which we are a part. My particular view is that the immensity of the universe (by our measure) is a reflection of the intent to have an intrinsic robustness (with a nod to Howard Van Til) embodying enormous numbers of such trajectories. That creates a universe that is unimaginably abundantly fruitful and diverse development-wise, ensuring at least in part the occurrence of certain kinds of outcomes which we can perhaps reasonably conclude includes the likes of ourselves, in whatever ways and extents we manifest a desired outcome of this intentional dynamic and evolving (yeh, I know) universe. As a part of its robustness, or relentless developmental character, this outcome could occur perhaps, or probably, more than once, though these outcomes would almost necessarily not be identical in physical attributes, and would occur non-concurrently along their own unique timelines.

I understand why it is appealing for many reasons to conceptualize a continuously supported/guided creation. At least in the form above, front-loading may leave behind the notion of a certain specificity, a certain uniqueness of purpose and outcome manifest in us, ...or does it?

But I would question why all this focus on the physicality of Creation and its functioning. Is that aspect of Creation really central to what we are in our place in this Creation, or is the heart of the matter how we live and act, and have the capacity to bring about that which transcends this physical context (at least in part). It seems to me that the existence and functioning of the physical world is merely(!?) a backdrop or ambiance, or reaction vessel or "soil", a host if you will for what might rhe ultimate expectation or hope for and in us as we continue to learn and grow where we seem to have sprouted in this incredibly verdant and blessed garden.

JimA [Friend of ASA]

Don Winterstein wrote:
Thanks for your thoughts. 
You wrote:  "...Distinguishing special guidance from front-loading from ordinary providence is not easy." 
As I have such a difficult time taking front-loading seriously, I'd like to ask a question to improve my understanding of how others regard it.  Namely, if God did everything through front-loading, would he have included a nearby supernova (Ordovician extinction) or an asteroid impact (K-T extinction) as an integral part of the process from before the Big Bang? 
I suppose to ask the question is to answer it, but at the same time the thing boggles my mind.  I really hope God doesn't have to deal with the amount of detail necessary to make something like that happen.  If he does, I'm sorry.  That's another reason why I prefer ongoing
"special guidance."  It may not be philosophically or scientifically elegant, but it's so much more compatible with what I perceive as reality, so much easier for mortals to deal with. 
----- Original Message -----
To: asa
Sent: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 2:34 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] on miracles

> In other words, while I agree with David C. that God is far more concerned
> with spiritual than physical attributes of his creatures--and his
> predestining may well not have included shapes of individual body
> parts--it's hard for me to imagine any form of marine life or invertebrate
> life becoming capable of satisfying God's larger (presumed) requirement.
> (Well, maybe if dolphins had arms and hands with opposable thumbs.... But
> how would they smelt ores under water? We can go into water and air and
> space; marine animals would have great difficulty doing much of anything out
> of water.)

Just to clarify: I do think that the spiritual aspects are more
important, but did not mean to take a stand either way as to whether
the physical attributes are important.

Theologically, I think all the details were predestined and "what
might have been" may not be a meaningful question, but as far as I
know there's no scientific way to assess those points.

There are various studies that support the idea that only a certain
range of forms and lifestyles are available, and that almost all of
them have been taken by organisms, though of course it's hard to prove
without either a large sample of planets with complex life forms that
arose independently or else the ability to run an experiment for a
billion years or so.

Also, a lot of the features of interest here are very hard to quantify
and analyze.   For example, Gould was quite excited about the fact
that, whereas almost all known post-Cambrian arthropods (and all known
post-Paleozoic ones) fit into a few categories based on the number,
position, and type of appendages (e.g., 0-2 pairs of antennae, which
segment has which mouthparts, 6 or 8 or more legs), many of the
Cambrian ones do not fit into these groups.  On the other hand, most
of the Cambrian arthropods are vaguely shrimplike, such that Walcott
thought that they could fit into the standard groups and only with the
detailed study of the past four decades or so did the anomalies gain
attention.  In contrast, anyone quickly can tell the differences
between a butterfly, a beetle, a bee, and a flea, yet they are all
members of a single major group of insects, the holometabolous orders.
 If the insects had a breathing system that allowed them to get
bigger, they might have been able to develop large brains.

> And while Gould may have exaggerated the randomness of evolution, from what
> I know of it, and most emphatically in acknowledgement of the effects of
> mass extinctions, it seems very likely that starting evolution at different
> times and places would lead to significantly different outcomes. While
> "changing one electron" should not have a major effect (unless it caused a
> crucial mutation!), even a minor extinction event should have a noticeable
> effect. For example, such extinction is likely to give some species a new
> competitive advantage that in turn may lead it to eliminate still other
> species.
> Many authors have pointed out that more than 99% of all species have gone
> extinct. Chances seem very good that, under conditions of randomness and
> without any special guidance, the species God wanted would not have
> survived.
> Don

Of course, distinguishing special guidance from front-loading from
ordinary providence is not easy.

Although mass extinctions are notoriously "random" in being
unpredictable and not necessarily sparing apparently successful groups
(it's hard to think of any organismal feature short of advanced
technological culture that would help avoid an incoming asteroid, for
example), often certain characteristics do seem to convey an
advantage.  Conway Morris's work on the topic is probably the most
extensive available, though of course taking a particular stance
rather than merely summarizing the pros and cons of all options.

A rather odd example comes from Dixon's envisioned world without a K/T
impact.  Although he rejects Dale Russell's intelligent human-like
dinosauroid on ground that evolution is more random than that, a lot
of the things he does have look a whole lot like actual non-human

Dr. David Campbell
425 Scientific Collections
University of Alabama
"I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"

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