I've been reading God's Undertaker, by John C. Lennox, a book arguing for "intelligent causation" - the idea that the universe and life are too irreducibly complex to have arisen by chance. Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford who has debated Richard Dawkins, makes a powerful case that information lies at the heart of life, and that this information (epitomized by, but not restricted to, the instructions encoded in DNA) cannot be explained by natural processes.
If this is true (and I strongly suspect that it is), it naturally raises the question of how this "intelligent causation" could actually be brought about. The notion of God as a chemist, reaching down with his mighty hand to splice the correct amino acids into the desired proteins, is hardly intellectually satisfying.
One approach that occurs to me is suggested by the idea of pure information underlying the physical world, a notion that we've played with before. We could imagine this informational matrix as something akin to a giant information processing system - a vast database, with the numbers constantly being crunched by algorithms. By analogy, think of the whole shebang as a computer run by a program; the numbers are processed in the background, between screen refreshes; changes in the informational content would be reflected in each new refresh, just as changes dictated by a computer program are seen in new combinations of pixels on the screen.
How, then, would intelligent causation manifest itself in such a system? Let's assume there is a problem to be solved - the emergence of life from nonliving antecedents. A great deal of evidence and statistical analysis suggests that natural processes and chance are inadequate to explain this development, because there simply is not enough time in the universe to play out all the scenarios necessary for the construction of even one protein by random combination of amino acids - let alone the dozens or hundreds of proteins needed for a functioning cell, not to mention the complexly encoded DNA molecules that run the cell itself.
So did God just snap his fingers and say, "Let there be life"? Or can we look at the issue from a slightly different perspective?
Suppose that in the timeless interval between screen refreshes, the information matrix is able to sketch out every possible scenario for a given batch of amino acids. Any outcome with a nonzero probability is included in a vast array of potentialities, ramifying in all directions. Far more than 99.999% of these pathways do not lead to a functioning protein. But somewhere in the cloud of potentia - somewhere in the dizzying web of possible paths - there is at least one pathway that does produce a protein.
If an intelligent agent - a super-mind acting behind the scenes - could select that one outcome out of all the others, and (in effect) collapse the wave function along that particular pathway, then the necessary steps would be actualized or manifested in the physical world, and the protein would come into existence.
The same procedure could be used to produce other proteins and even the desired encoding of a DNA molecule - by allowing every scenario to play out in virtual reality (behind the scenes) and then intelligently selecting the one scenario in every case that would accomplish the objective.
Of course, this presupposes that there is an objective - a goal - and that there is a consciousness capable of holding this objective in mind and making the necessary selections. Both premises take us very far from naturalism or materialism, and very far from mainstream science as it's practiced today. Whether this is a feature or a bug depends on one's personal worldview.
It might be objected that the whole procedure is unnecessary, since if the mind in question already knows what it wants, why should it need to spin out a multiplicity of scenarios, most of which are dead ends? But I'm suggesting that while the mind may know its goal, it may not know the best way to get there. It may have to let a million pathways take temporary shape in order to find, by hit and miss, the one pathway that will actually work. In other words, the mind we're talking about may be very, very smart, but not omniscient. Though its resources and capabilities are vastly greater than ours, it may still have to grope its way to the best answer to a given problem.
The same idea would apply, naturally, to macroevolutionary change - not to microevolution (relatively trivial changes in coloration, size, resistance to antibiotics, etc.), but major alterations significant enough to bring about new species.
Perhaps most of the time nature is stuck in a kind of stasis, with small mutations occurring and mostly being weeded out or producing temporary, minor changes and often reverting to the mean. But if a species comes under serious pressure and a more dramatic response is called for, perhaps once again the information-processing program starts spinning out pathways to new features and new modalities. Any major change will involve a large number of genetic mutations and probably other alterations as well, all occurring simultaneously or at least in a compressed time frame. The odds of this happening are incredibly remote, but they may not be zero. Somewhere in the cloud of ramifying potentialities, there may be one scenario that gets the endangered population where it needs to go. If the intelligence working behind the scenes identifies and selects that pathway, no matter how unlikely it may be, then that is the one that will manifest. It may still take many generations; there may be no shortcut that allows for the emergence of a new species overnight; it may be imperfect, requiring awkward compromises or the retention of vestigial or superfluous features; and in many cases there may be no viable path, and the population will become extinct. Still, if a path can be selected, it will be the most efficient path possible, one so improbable that it would almost never actualize if left to chance alone.
Now, I know that natural selection involves more than chance; but in mainstream science the genetic mutations on which natural selection operates are attributed entirely to chance. Any suggestion that these mutations are guided or directed toward a goal, or brought into being by an intentional agency, would be rejected out of hand as superstition and teleology. Still, that's what I'm suggesting: that in periods of acute distress, when a population must change radically or perish, an intelligent agent behind the scenes selects from among all possible mutations (and other adaptations) that could, in principle, occur - all mutations with a nonzero probability, even if that probability is vanishingly small - and then selects whatever pathway allows for the most promising set of mutations in the shortest available time.
Some storyline like this may perhaps help to visualize how intelligent causation, using the underlying information matrix, could select outcomes that allow for the origin and macroevolution of life, without the need for miracles (only for extremely improbable events), violations of natural law, or overt (as opposed to covert, behind-the-scenes) divine intervention.
Incidentally, something similar could be imagined for the intelligent causation of the universe itself - if we suppose that every possible scenario proceeding from the Big Bang could be spun out in virtual terms, with the scenario best suited to produce a stable, complex, habitable universe being selected and manifested.
In a way, it's like trading stocks in a virtual trading environment - so-called "paper trades." You can buy and sell as many stocks as you like and play out any scenario that interests you, without risking any money, because the trades are not real. In this way you can gain a great deal of trading experience before ever investing a cent.
Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe. Maybe not. But who knows? He might make paper trades.