Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Does Nature Show Purpose? Reply to a Materialist Philosopher


Materialists struggle with purpose in nature, because their ideology rules out natural purposes, and yet purpose is obvious everywhere in nature. How can materialists reconcile their ideology with quite contradictory facts?

They talk gibberish.

To wit: materialist Joseph Carter, a University of Georgia doctoral student in Greek philosophy, writes for the New York Times philosophy forum, The Stone:

Purpose is a universal human need. Without it, we feel bereft of meaning and happiness… But, where does purpose come from? What is it? For over two millenniums, discerning our purpose in the universe has been a primary task of philosophers. Aristotle believed that the universe is saturated with it, that everything has an intrinsic drive. Our word purpose comes from the Greek telos, a goal that stipulates what and how something needs to be. For Aristotle, the universe and everything in it has an essential directive. Any deviation from it belies truth and reality. Teleology concerns order, stability and accomplishment.

Indeed, Aristotle saw teleology, which is final cause, as “the cause of causes,” the cause that directs nearly all change. But teleology is not the same thing as purpose, and the relationship between the two is an interesting discussion in its own right.

Let’s start with teleology.

Aristotelian teleology is, as Carter points out, manifested by order in nature. More precisely, teleology is consistency: natural processes tend to consistent ends. The ends are not necessarily invariable, but most natural change is predictable. The sun rises each day in the east (and not the west), rocks fall down (and not up), flowers bloom in spring and leaves turn red in fall. In modern science, electrons move in accordance with Schrodinger’s equation and positive magnetic poles attract negative magnetic poles. Science is the study of consistency in natural change.

These are examples of the teleology that pervades nature, and Aristotle saw that this teleology seemed to “pull” change: material and efficient and formal causes of natural change always seemed to be “pulled along” by final cause. Final cause is the organizer of change in nature.

Carter digresses to ethics (Aristotle saw directness in human affairs as well) and then returns to the question of teleology in nature:

I’m certainly no Aristotelian… [A]s a materialist, I think there’s nothing intrinsic about the goals and purposes we seek to achieve it. Modern science explicitly jettisons this sort of teleological thinking from our knowledge of the universe. From particle physics to cosmology, we see that the universe operates well without purpose… The laws of physics are inherently mechanistic.

This is where Carter goes off the rails. Aristotelian final cause in nature is not the same thing as purpose in nature. Aristotelian teleology is simply consistency in nature, which is obvious to all observers. Nature is predictable, to a great extent. That is teleology.

Bizarrely, Carter uses entropy to deny teleology:

The second law of thermodynamics, for instance, states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy is the degree of disorder in a system, for example our universe. Physical disorder is all about equilibrium — everything resting randomly and uniformly… The Earth, our solar system, galaxies and even supermassive black holes will break down to the quantum level, where everything cools to a uniform state. This process is known as the arrow of time. Eventually everything ends in heat death. The universe certainly started with a bang, but it likely ends with a fizzle. What’s the purpose in that, though? There isn’t one. At least not fundamentally. Entropy is antagonistic to intrinsic purpose. It’s about disorder.

Entropy — the tendency for change to reduce overall order — is a teleological process. It is perhaps the overarching teleological process observable in nature. Teleology is not order, in the sense of lowest entropy. Teleology is consistency in the direction of change — the tendency for nature, in this case, to change to greater disorder.

While entropy is a kind of physical disorder, it is, from a metaphysical perspective, a very clear kind of order in natural change: a consistent tendency for the net order of material things to decrease with change. As a consistent tendency, entropy is teleological. Teleology pervades nature: even disorganization in nature is teleological.

Entropy isn’t a refutation of Aristotelian teleology. It’s a strikingly clear manifestation of it.

After misunderstanding Aristotle’s metaphysics, Carter goes on to misunderstand science, and to confuse teleology with purpose. Those are topics for my next posts.

Photo credit: National Park Service.