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How Is Purpose Related to Teleology in Nature?

Michael Egnor

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In two earlier posts (here and here), I’ve commented on materialist philosopher Joseph Carter’s New York Times essay, “The Universe Doesn’t Care About Your Purpose.” Carter denies the existence of teleology in nature, but he is mistaken. Nature is saturated with teleology, and modern sciences such as physics and biology are impossible without reference to directedness of natural change and “what things are for.” Carter tries to explain the obvious purposes of human beings as being derived from evolution, but his attempt to link purpose to procreation is more humor than science or logic.

Carter expounds — flails really — on materialist explanations for purpose. He quotes materialist physicist Sean Carroll’s assertion that human meaning and purpose…

aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.

So purpose is just talk! It gets worse. Carter:

Purpose springs from our longing for permanence in an ever-changing universe. It is a reaction to the universe’s indifference to us. We create stories about the world and ourselves as contours, “phantom bodies,” of the inevitability of loss and change. Myths appear timeless; they have what Blumenberg calls an iconic constancy. Stories pass through generations, often becoming traditions, customs, even laws and institutions that order and give meaning to our lives. Purpose grows out of the durability of human lore. Our stories serve as directives for the ways we need the world to exist.

Presumably, purpose in man arose from grunts around Homo habilis’ campfires. Carter sets off on a riff on the shimmering beauty and transcendent justice of our poignant stories in the icy embrace of our indifferent universe (campfire stories are contagious!):

An indifferent universe also offers us a powerful and compelling case for living justly and contentedly because it allows us to anchor our attention here. It teaches us that this life matters and that we alone are responsible for it. Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit. Oppression, war and conflict are self-inflicted. When we ask what’s the purpose of the recent gassing of Syrian children in the Idlib Province or the torture and killings of Chechnyan homosexual men, we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves, to the entrenched mythologies that drive such actions — then reject them when the institutions they inform amount to acts of horror.

 Carter blames the indifference of the universe for our “insignificance” and its consequences.

But the universe as we understand it tells us nothing about the goal or meaning of existence, let alone our own. In the grand scheme of things, you and I are enormously insignificant. But not entirely insignificant. For starters, we are important to each other.

Yet we are the only things in the universe who bemoan our insignificance. That is quite significant.

Materialists and atheists have always struggled with this problem: if materialism is true, we are meat and nothing more. If atheism is true, there is no good and no evil and no purpose whatsoever to our existence. If we were insignificant, we wouldn’t know our insignificance. A bacterium doesn’t know it is insignificant. A stone doesn’t know it is insignificant.

Only man knows, and that is very significant.

So whence purpose, in an indifferent universe? How can men have purposes if the universe — of which man is a part — has no purpose at all?

How can purpose arise from that which has no purpose? It can’t. There is an axiom of scholastic metaphysics that addresses this materialist misunderstanding. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “whatever perfection exists in an effect must be found in the effective cause” (Summa Theologica 1.4.2). “Perfection” is the scholastic term for actuality. This is the principle of proportionate causality, one of the three basic Thomistic metaphysical principles. St. Thomas’ principle of proportionate causality may be stated in modern English as “something cannot give what it does not actually have.” We see the truth of this metaphysical principle in modern conservation laws of science. Momentum and energy and charge and mass cannot be imparted to an effect unless it is in the cause in some actual way. This is closely related to the Principle of Sufficient Reason — the principle that everything that happens in nature has a reason fully sufficient to account for it — described by (atheist) Bertrand Russell as one of the indispensable principles of thought.

Man cannot create ex nihilo. Causes are ontologically related to effects. If purposes exist in us, then purposes must be found in our efficient cause — the universe itself. Purpose cannot arise from nothing. Man can have no purpose unless the universe has purpose.

And the teleology that permeates nature and the purposes of men share a remarkable property: they are principles that point beyond themselves. They are manifestations of intentionality, which is the ability of a thought to point to an object other than itself. Intentionality is the hallmark of a mind.

This forms the basis for Aquinas’ Fifth Way. He points out that the obvious teleology in nature presupposes a directedness — he gives the analogy of an arrow shot by an archer — that in turn presupposes a Mind that guides nature — a Mind that gives nature its purpose.

Just as man’s purposes come from man’s mind, nature’s purposes come from a Mind.

And it is just that Mind, and the metaphysical and scientific consequences of acknowledging that Mind, that materialists like Carter are trying so furiously to evade.

Photo credit: George Chernilevsky (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.