Thursday, February 2, 2012

God's Purpose or Nature's Dice? The proper role of teleology in an evolutionary account of the cosmos

An early pioneer of theistic-evolutionary thought, the Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), suggested that the course of evolution followed an inevitable path, a directional course, toward a particular goal, which he termed the "Omega Point." In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard outlined certain watershed moments or stages along this course. The stage which saw the unfolding and development of the material universe of primordial particles resulting in the formation of the elements and chemical compounds that would serve as preconditions for biological life he termed "geosphere." That which saw the emergence and proliferation of biological lifeforms he termed "biosphere." The arrival of humanity, endowed with consciousness and a rational mind, he termed "noosphere" (from nous meaning "mind" in Greek). His final vision was that of the Omega Point, to which all creation was being drawn from the beginning. 

Some have found Teilhard's model  helpful in providing a logical outline for a theistic-evolutionary account of the cosmos. However, care should be taken in how far one goes in employing Teilhard's model, lest its use draws the charge of orthogenesis or autogenesis (i.e. progressive evolution). Classical orthogenesis is the hypothesis that evolution follows a straight or unilateral course towards an end or goal because of some internal or external driving force. Natural selection as the basic mechanism for evolution is either discounted or deemed unimportant. Typically speaking, orthogenetic models attempt to infer teleology, or final causation, in nature, meaning that design and purpose are detectable in nature. This is the fallacy of the so-called "Intelligent Design" movement.

While it certainly could be argued that an inferred teleology is necessary for a theological explanation of an evolving cosmos, teleology has no place in the scientific interpretation of the physical universe. Any theistic-evolutionary account that claims to detect teleology in nature or to replace and/or modify scientific explanations with theological ones is entirely out of bounds. The fact is, the physical processes of the universe possess no internal, directional "end-driven" goals, and there is no reason, whether theological or scientific, for the theistic-evolutionist to challenge or question this.  

However, this does not mean that intrinsically there are not directional "end-seeking" goals in the physical universe.  Specifically, one can speak of teleomatic processes (i.e. those that follow natural laws), teleonomic structures (e.g. organs or traits that serve an overall purpose), and adaptive systems (those that exist because they have survived). But these are functional descriptions, not, strictly speaking, teleological. A scientist may speak of a particular adaptation occurring in an organism for the "purpose of survival," but this is metaphorical language. What the scientist really means to say is that those organisms that adapt to their environment survive. As John S. Wilkins aptly explains:
It may help to think of a social analogy. We can explain the behaviour of a stock broker teleologically, for a stock broker seeks a goal (the best profit). We cannot explain the behaviour of a stock market, for stock markets have no goals, just outcomes. When Dawkins talks about genes maximising their representation in the gene pool, this is a metaphor not an explanation. Genes just replicate. It happens that those that out-replicate others end up out-surviving them. There is no 'goal' to genetic behaviour.
While teleology may not be valid on the level of scientific inquiry, there is certainly every reason to infer teleology in the actions of moral agents, in the social sciences, in political theory, in philosophical discourse, and ultimately in theology. Any attempt at a comprehensive understanding of reality is compelled to venture beyond the narrow restrictions of scientific inquiry and its question of "why things appear to be the way they are." Merely explaining the outcome of nature's "throw of the dice" does not satisfy the human yearning to understand the reason, purpose, goal behind the cosmos. "To what end (teleosdoes the cosmos exists at all?" "What is the purpose behind our own existence?" Indeed, the theologian's great task, particularly in light science's explanation of the "way things appear to be," is to ask, "What is God's purpose in all of this?" 

In "Theosis Interrupted," Creation was presented as an act of kenosis (divine "self-emptying"), which included the freedom to "become" as well as the freedom to "be." Hence, not only for scientific reasons, but also for good theological ones, the theistic-evolutionist is compelled to concede that material processes are undetermined, contingent and free (i.e. random), rather than determined and pre-ordained. This does not, however, negate the idea that the Creator God has created the cosmos for God's own purposes, nor the theological conclusion that, from the beginning, the Creator has been lovingly and graciously drawing the cosmos to share in the divine life -- the transformative process termed theosis.

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