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Neil D. Broom
Does Nature Suggest Transcendence?


That the living world might, in some deep mysterious way, be expressive of a transcendent dimension is largely rejected by contemporary secular thinkers. Most assert that modern science has demonstrated, at least in principle, that life is the product of entirely natural, unplanned processes. Biological materialism, or naturalism, is an all-embracing material explanation of how molecules evolved into complex living organisms.

Naturalism’s recipe for the unfolding of life is intimately bound up with the concept of Darwinian natural selection (NS). Now deeply informed by modern molecular biology, NS is really a description of biological transformation arising from the differential and adaptive survival of genes. Naturalism is committed to placing NS entirely within the wholly material basket and, single-handed, it is charged with the monumental task of conquering the ‘Everest’ of biological innovation. However, I will argue that all naturalistic descriptions of NS betray a deep need for something quite unnatural in a material sense, i.e. a crucial reliance on a dimension that is much more than material.

Commonsense comparisons between the living and non-living worlds point to properties and characteristics of life that remain inexplicable in terms of the material laws and processes revealed by science. The behavior of the living organism is likened to a musical melody, the material laws being viewed as the individual notes that are played. These notes do not, of themselves, define the musical theme: rather, they are exploited for a higher purpose that reflects the creativity of the composer.

NS relies on a strangely non-material principle: the organism seems possessed of a drive to flourish. It wants to live and to this end it performs intensely purposeful, anticipatory tasks. This ceaseless striving to live and to engage in self-repair when damaged is quite alien to any non-living system. It has an awareness of both its ‘organic responsibility and destiny’.

But because biological systems behave in a ‘mechanical’ manner, it is often argued that they are reducible to wholly material laws. In challenging this view, I will draw on the insights of Michael Polanyi who insists that mechanism points to something beyond and above purely material entities.

I argue that biological materialism’s claim to have explained the phenomenon of life and its evolutionary development in wholly materials terms is unjustified. Fixated as it is on a one-line causal economy, acknowledging only the unfeeling laws of a mindless purposeless material world naturalism presents an absurdly truncated theory of life, one that fails to account for the ‘aliveness’ of the biological world. I argue that right down the evolutionary line to primordial ‘ground zero’ one is confronted with a dimension that relates to something akin to the activity of Mind, and that this is consistent with a model of an evolving creation that doesn’t shrink from placing the essential activity of God right at the very core of the organic process.

Neil D. Broom is Professor of Materials Science at the University of Auckland New Zealand.  He completed his Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Melbourne and his PhD at The University of Auckland. 

Following postdoctoral studies at Cambridge University for 3½ years, he returned to a full-time research post in Biomaterials at his present institution until he took up an academic lecturing position teaching materials science to engineering students.  His current research interests are experimental tissue mechanics, osteoarthritis, and spinal biomechanics. 

The author has a longstanding interest in the science/God debate and has explored related themes in his book How Blind is the Watchmaker which was first published in the Ashgate-Avebury Series in Philosophy in 1998 and more recently by InterVarsity Press as a paperback.


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