, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 261–268

Robert Ulanowicz and the Possibility of a Theology of Evolution


Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10516-010-9122-z

Cite this article as:
Haught, J.F. Axiomathes (2012) 22: 261. doi:10.1007/s10516-010-9122-z


In A Third Window Robert Ulanowicz exposes the explanatory weaknesses of both classical and statistical methods in scientific inquiry. His book, however, does much more than that. While being completely grounded in empirical science, it also outlines a worldview, or a metaphysics, that renders intelligible the fact of chance and emergent novelty. Ulanowicz establishes his position by comparing his “third window” onto nature with two others conventional scientific approaches. The purpose of this essay is to point out the value of Ulanowicz’s approach for improving the quality of conversation between science and theology.


EvolutionClassical methodStatistical methodGenetic methodEmergent probabilityBernard LonerganNarrativeDramaTheology

I simply could not embrace any metaphysics that precluded a coherent inclusion of all that was actively shaping the world around us. (Robert Ulanowicz, A Third Window, xii)

In A Third Window Robert Ulanowicz exposes the explanatory weaknesses in the still influential Newtonian (mechanistic) worldview. His book, however, does much more than that. While being completely grounded in empirical science, it also outlines a worldview, or a metaphysics, that renders intelligible the fact of chance and emergent novelty. Ulanowicz establishes his position by comparing his “third window” onto nature with two others. The first window is that of the Newtonian worldview, based on “the assumption of causal closure” (19). It assumes that the only “licit explanations of natural phenomena” are mechanical or material causes (20). Newtonian assumptions wrapped in a materialist metaphysics are still prevalent (for example, Dawkins 1986, 1995, 1996; Dennett 1995, 2006; Coyne 2009). Unfortunately, according to Ulanowicz, this perspective fails to allow anything really new to occur in the natural world (23). Moreover, by endowing only determinate objects with agency the mechanistic worldview only leads the explanatory process to bog down in abstractions. Ulanowicz, on the other hand, proposes that processes rather than objects should be given explanatory priority (164). He refers to his view as “process ecology.”

A second window onto the universe is implicit in some interpretations of quantum physics as well as in the Darwinian revolution. Using Ulanowicz’s vocabulary we may refer to the second window as “the aleatoric” (literally, having to do with dice-tossing) point of view. It works on the assumption that accidents, randomness or what philosophers call “contingency” are ontologically real aspects of the universe, but that they are unintelligible scientifically. Some Darwinian biologists and philosophers give explanatory significance to these apparently irrational contingent occurrences, especially with respect to the variations that nature blindly selects for survival and reproduction (see Gould 1977, 1989). Chance, in other words, is real rather than illusory, but its intelligibility is still questionable. Not willing to settle for unintelligibility, the scientific advocates of mechanism mentally resolve apparent randomness into deterministic processes.

This is not good enough for Ulanowicz’s process ecology, which entails a scientific scheme in which randomness can be both real and intelligible. Process ecology seeks, therefore, to make better sense of the element of contingency in Darwinian evolution and other emergent phenomena than mechanism can. Darwin himself had at least started to take randomness seriously, but almost as soon as he introduced the idea of accident into his account of variation, he and his followers, still bewitched by the monistic metaphysics of mechanism, relegated the contingency in life to the realm of mere appearance, as something that might ultimately be explained, and hence explained away, by a more thorough understanding of life in terms of the unbending laws of physics.

According to process ecology, neither of the just mentioned perspectives is adequate to represent what is really going on in the natural world. What is needed, therefore, is a third window onto nature. It must be one that recognizes the abstractness of the essentially closed Newtonian world and therefore demands a more careful understanding of what modern scientific abstractions have left out—in particular the fact of contingency. Process ecology wants to catch randomness before it gets dissolved into Newtonian determinism and then floats out of sight. Apart from randomness, it claims, there would be no novelty and no real change in the natural world. There would be no genuine evolution. The world would be one in which nothing ontologically new ever really occurs. Neither determinism nor sheer contingency, when each is absolutized and isolated from the other, is able to make sense of actually living and emergent phenomena. The search for explanation by either a purely Newtonian or a purely aleatoric approach ultimately leads to intellectual impasse.

Especially problematic is the fact that most neo-Darwinians, in spite of the prominent role that “undirected” events play in their accounts of evolutionary development, still assume that a full understanding of evolution will be attained only in accordance with the Newtonian assumption of causal closure. For process ecology, however, such credulity serves only to obscure the salient features of life and evolution rather than truly explaining them. Hence, there is need for a scientific method that can make better sense of emergence in general, and the evolution of life in particular, than either an exclusively mechanistic or a purely probabilistic method can accomplish. Any serious espousal of such a method, however, may require an equally profound shift in metaphysics.

As a theologian, I am interested especially in the question of whether biological evolution is compatible with religious affirmations of ultimate meaning. Most religions imply that the universe, life, mind and moral aspiration exist for a reason, although this meaning varies from one tradition to another. Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), moreover, believe in the reality and inviolability of human (moral) freedom, an ideal that does not comfortably fit into the classical scientific worldview either. If the physical universe were reducible to either mechanistic or probabilistic occurrences, it could hardly be the carrier of inherent significance or meaning, nor would it allow in principle for the inclusion of free human beings within its boundaries.

Hence The Third Window is intriguing to me because it successfully exposes the explanatory inadequacy of both a purely mechanistic and an exclusively probabilistic understanding of the universe. Process ecology provides a portrait of nature that acknowledges the limits of the Newtonian ideal of complete causal closure while giving fresh intelligibility to the contingent or accidental events in nature that constitute so formidable a stumbling block to the proponents of intelligent design and other religious antagonists of Darwin. By refusing to dissolve evolution into either a purely mechanistic or an ultimately random set of events, The Third Window seems more empirically grounded than what becomes visible only through the first and second windows. At the same time, at least in terms of my own interests, process ecology has the advantage of rendering nature and evolution open to theological interpretation.

1 The “Narrative Cosmological Principle”

As I look at the world through Ulanowicz’s third window, what stands out is the irreducibly narrative character of nature that process ecology opens up. Life, along with the universe that gave birth to it, turns out to be a story, not a state. Theologically the importance of narrative is that, at least in principle, it can carry a dramatic meaning. Narrative, myth and various other kinds of storytelling have allowed religious people everywhere to express the sense that their lives are grounded in transcendent meaning even while they experience the fragility and instability of actual existence. For the most part, religions and theologies have assumed that something of utmost importance is going on in the dramatic depths beneath the surface of ordinary experience, and they have expressed their convictions primordially by way of narrative discourse. Being part of a momentous story provides religious people with a sense of meaning and a reason for moral aspiration. Because of the close connection between narrative and religious meaning, therefore, it is of no slight significance theologically that scientific thinkers such as Ulanowicz are now observing that even scientific data pertaining to cosmic emergence and evolution cannot make sense apart from their taking on a narrative format themselves.

Although Ulanowicz is not directly concerned with either theology or nature’s narrative pattern of being, it seems to me that his third window opens onto an exquisite blend of the three essential components of any story: predictability, contingency and time. Process ecology is a synthesis of classical and statistical methods of scientific inquiry that establishes a third approach which, in my view, is very similar to the brilliant understanding of science already set forth in the 1950s in the often neglected work of the philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1970).

Both Ulanowicz and Lonergan are in agreement that neither classical nor statistical methods alone can account for the actual fact of emergence or novelty in cosmic process. And so they propose a third approach, one that integrates and goes beyond the limitations of both classical and statistical methods. Ever since Galileo, classical method (Window I) has reduced secondary to primary qualities and looked upon the latter as concretely real, whereas in fact they are quite abstract. A universe construed so abstractly does not, and cannot, have a real future. Instead the “future” is simply an uncoiling of what has always been packed into the past. Such a worldview, since it understands life and mind as purely epiphenomenal and reducible to inanimate “matter,” amounts to what Hans Jonas has called an ontology of death. The philosopher Daniel Dennett’s algorithmic “explanation” of evolution is clearly representative of this approach to scientific understanding (Dennett 1995).

Window II, on the other hand, is transparent to random events. Randomness requires the use of statistical method which takes into account, especially after Darwin and quantum physics, the accidental or “aleatoric” events that cannot be systematically captured by the wide-meshed net of classical method (Lonergan 53–69; 103–39). Its probabilistic search for intelligibility is tolerant of the unsystematic, and for that reason it makes room for novelty and a degree of unpredictability as it opens onto possible future states of nature. Instead of closure, this approach assumes that the universe cannot be reduced to absolute mathematical clarity. Classical laws can explain nothing in themselves, but only in combination with knowledge of the specific (contingent) physical conditions in which the laws become applicable. By itself statistical method, however, still leaves much to be desired as far as the intelligibility of random events is concerned.

Process ecology, Window III, combines classical and statistical procedures so as to grasp what I am calling the irreducibly narrative structure of nature and life. In a manner similar to that of the philosopher Bernard Lonergan, Ulanowicz offers the makings here of a worldview in which classical and statistical methods are combined to provide another picture, that of what Lonergan calls emergent probability. Emergent probability designates the fact that world-process is one in which new “schemes of recurrence” such as, for example, the carbon cycle in star formation, or metabolic processes in living beings, which may have seemed improbable early in the universe become more probable in the course of time. Emergent probability has an intelligibility that can be captured heuristically only by “genetic method” (Lonergan 121–28; 458–65). Genetic method–which is what process ecology implicitly follows–is needed in order to understand how things change, develop or evolve. Genetic method’s objective is to understand how novelty can emerge in nature. A major concern of genetic method is to avoid the unfounded assumption that randomness is inherently illusory and unintelligible. It can show that the aleatoric is indispensable to genuine development and emergence.

As I look through Window III, I see the world taking on the form of an unfinished drama (Haught 2010, 53–66). The blend of predictability (idealized by classic method), contingency (taken into account statistically) and process (the content of genetic method) yield a picture of nature as richly narrative and hence in principle capable of carrying a meaning. Moreover, it is the drama itself, and not abstractly understood mechanistic or aleatoric events, that carries everything along. The drama itself is a kind of agency that neither of the first two windows allows us to see.

How so? As it turns out, the three components of Darwin’s recipe for evolution—accidents, natural selection and time—are instances of the elements essential to any dramatic production. Recall your own witnessing of a drama, whether a soap opera or Shakespeare’s Macbeth. To hold your attention the drama has to have (a) an openness to novelty or surprise, for otherwise you would not be drawn into it; (b) an element of continuity which ties the stream of events together into a coherence without which they would be merely disconnected droplets; and (c) a passage of time sufficient in length for dramatic development to take place. A series of occurrences takes on the shape of drama only if it fuses unpredictability with some degree of predictability and a span of time ample enough for the relevant events to unfold. This triplet of components is also constitutive of the narrative form in which religions, myths, and theologies seek to make the world intelligible. All three elements—contingency, continuity and time—are essential to any story, including that of the natural world. And the three elements cannot be isolated from one another without the narrative disintegrating into episodic fragments and sinking therefore into unintelligibility.

A failure to take the narrative structure of nature into account is typical of both evolutionary materialists and anti-Darwinian Christians. Both extremes focus on design rather than drama as the central issue in the ongoing discussion of the relationship of the idea of God to nature and evolution. In my view, the narrow fixation on the topic of design leads only to an impasse in the search for nature’s intelligibility. On the other hand, focusing on evolution as a still unfinished drama (rather than a display-case of designs) allows a more promising engagement of science and theology as they both seek to make sense of a changing, emergent universe (Haught 2010).

Unfortunately, scientists and philosophers stationed at the first two windows have seized Darwin’s rich story of life and bled the dramatic juice right out of it. Mechanistic treatments separate the element of contingency in the life-story from that of predictability, in effect destroying both suspense and coherence. Simultaneously, some evolutionists turn life’s temporal depth into a rambling series of meaningless moments leading to a final statistical abyss. Evolutionary materialists habitually refer to contingency as “chance,” and to nature’s lawful predictability as “necessity.” Both chance and necessity, however, are in fact abstractions which, when separated mentally from nature’s actual narrative unfolding, point only to an ultimately senseless universe. Meanwhile the real drama of nature’s development and openness to novelty goes unnoticed. The dramatic “becoming more” of nature and life remain hidden as long as scientists survey the world only through the first two windows.

In their accounts of evolution, philosophies of biology sometimes gaze through both the first and second windows simultaneously, but what they see is blurry at best. After looking fleetingly through the second window they hastily seek clarity by moving back to the first, where they attempt to resolve the annoyance of contingency into hard rock necessity–into what the poet Alexander Pope refers to as “direction which thou canst not see.” Window III, however, instead of presenting living cells and organisms as instances of intelligent design (ID) or, alternately, as the results of blind, impersonal physical processes, opens onto the more panoramic narrative structure of nature. Like many other scientific terms “narrative” is a metaphor, of course, but scientists are now at least beginning to acknowledge that biology, geology and cosmology are inherently historical sciences, which means that their heuristic structure is narrative.

2 The Possibility of a Theology of Evolution

Long before life appeared and began to evolve roughly 4 billion years ago, already waiting on the cosmic table was a narrative matrix consisting of an exquisite and irreducible blend of the three components essential to any story: (1) the possibility of contingent or random events; (2) reliable laws of nature; and (3) an irreversible temporal process. These three fundamental cosmic ingredients are essential cosmic conditions for the emergence of the evolutionary story that Darwin and other scientists have uncovered. Darwin’s 1859 publication On The Origin of Species is a compelling read not only because of the vast amount of empirical data it lays out, but even more because beneath its elaborate detail it tells a fascinating story. Darwin’s work is dramatic if for no other reason than that it lays before us a long struggle accompanied by risk, adventure, tragedy, and in the end by what Darwin calls “grandeur.” I submit, however, that the grandeur to which Darwin refers is inseparable from the tortuous tale of events that leads up to it. Life after Darwin has the character not so much of design as of drama.

A theology of evolution locates this drama within the very life of God. Speaking symbolically, Christians might say that the becoming of the universe, including the emergence and evolution of life and consciousness, is woven everlastingly into the “kingdom of heaven” (see Whitehead 1968, 345–41). Science, of course, is methodologically constrained to avoid all talk about any deeper meanings, but my point is that a dimension of meaning need no longer be automatically exorcised from evolution, as inevitably occurs when we look at nature solely through the first two windows.

Understood theologically, what is really going on in the drama of life, and in such a way as to be completely hidden from strictly scientific representation, is that the whole of creation is being transformed by way of a drama whose grandeur far surpasses what Darwin and the rest of us can glimpse only “through a glass darkly.” It is not in the design, diversity and descent, but in the transformative drama of life, that theology looks for grandeur and meaning (Haught 2010, 53–66).

Of course, it is pointless to speak of dramatic or genetic intelligibility to those planted immovably at the first two windows. This is partly because the drama is still far from finished, thus making its full intelligibility something for which we must wait. Meanwhile, however, theology may now observe that historically the most religiously troubling questions Darwin raised are those that arise when inquirers restrict their viewpoints on nature to what is visible only through Windows I and II. From these perspectives life seems reducible to an accidental and impersonal chain of events that remains fundamentally closed off to real novelty. Theologically speaking, Darwin’s greatest, though unintentional, contribution to theology is his revelation of life as a long and intriguing story that begs to be read at many levels of understanding. The dramatizing of life as a “struggle for existence,” as an epic involving tragedy as well as triumph, only intensifies our sense of the dramatic dynamics of nature.

Once we have acknowledged the irreducibly dramatic character of life, the main topic of concern for theology is whether the drama should be read as tragedy or comedy. We cannot answer such questions with final clarity at present. We can only hope. It is the nature of drama that its witnesses have to wait patiently since, at least in this universe, intelligibility is itself still in process of emerging.

Moreover, if the drama turns out to be cosmic in scope, we may have to wait all the longer. Cosmology, after all, has now shown the universe itself to be itself a still unfinished story. In the early to mid-twentieth century, astrophysics and cosmology began to capture the universe’s narrative demeanor as an irreversible temporal process with a rather crisp beginning, a stunning plurality of physical and chemical transformations, and a vaguer kind of ending projected into the far distant temporal future. After Darwin and Big Bang cosmology, science has gradually realized that its subject matter includes, in all its magnitude, an irreversible drama open to an indefinite future.

In this drama, the elements of contingency, predictability and time blend indivisibly with one another. In the concrete temporal flow of physical reality there are no clearly isolated compartments labeled “accidents” or “inevitabilities.” Scientists and philosophers may at times package some events as purely accidental and others as absolutely necessary, but the actual story of nature cannot be dissected into either pure lawfulness or pure randomness without distortion. Contingency, lawfulness and time are woven inseparably into an irreducible narrative cosmic blend whose meaning remains to be understood.

Along with ID proponents, ultra-Darwinian materialists, gazing out of Window I (and fleetingly out of Window II), understandably fail to inquire about any possible narrative coherence since they cannot even see the dramatic breadth and depth of nature from that vantage point. However, at least for theology, the dramatic character of nature as seen through Window III is many times more striking than the whole array of biochemical designs. Unfortunately, both ID proponents and evolutionary materialists seem to have no other way of dealing with the debate about God and evolution then to squabble about design. ID proponents insist that design is irreducibly complex and nonfunctional apart from the intervention of God (Behe 1996). The evolutionary materialists, on the other hand, declare that the inevitable imperfection of adaptive design in life could never be the product of an infinitely intelligent Engineer. Therefore, God does not exist.

Theologically, however, it is not ephemeral designs in the life-process but the dramatic substructure of evolution that is the most astonishing datum for inquiry. If evolution has a meaning it would be embedded in the narrative depths of life and the cosmos, not in the sporadic spatial distribution of complex organic arrangements. Theologically I prefer to look at the temporal flow that allows nature to be a drama, not so much at isolated complex systems or elaborately structured molecular states, in order to see if any sense can be made of life.

Consequently, I think it would be highly premature on the part of anyone simply to declare at present that science has proved life to be pointless and the universe pitilessly indifferent. Let us allow sufficient time for the whole drama to unfold. Doing so, of course, requires the discipline of waiting, conquering the temptation to premature declarations about whether the universe is pointless or not. Not only scientists but also theologians need to wait. Still, we can safely say that what appears through the third window is–in the absence of full vision here and now—at least compatible with hope (Haught 2000, 2006, 2010).

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010