Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature?

I’ve just read Grant Maxwell’s critique of a HuffPo piece by Matthew Hutson.

I enjoyed his rebuttal of Hutson’s blanket rejection realism regarding teleology. I am also enjoying the discussion Grant is having with Hutson down in the comments. I do not think Hutson has read the work of organic/creative finalists like Bergson or Whitehead. His concept of teleology is very mechanical and industrial, very Anglo-American; it totally lacks the Franco-German flavor of Whitehead and Bergson’s organicism, which has its modern origins in the Naturphilosophie of Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling (and its ancient origins in alchemy and hermeticism). If you’ve read those guys, or their more recent incarnation Teilhard’s “The Human Phenomenon,” its impossible to think of creationism as somehow necessarily opposed to evolutionism. It begins to seem, rather, that they imply and require one another.

I heard a lecture by professor of German literature Fred Amrine tonight on Goethe’s Color Theory. Prof. Amrine quoted Goethe (usually known for his poetry and artistic genuis and not as a pioneering natural scientist) as having asserted towards the end of his life something like “It is for my theory of colors, and its refutation of Newton, that posterity will remember me.” Goethe described his color theory as a “sensory-moral” account of natural phenomena such that the “physical laws” those phenomena “obey” are seen to emerge from out of one’s conscious perceptions themselves, rather than being imposed upon them from outside as in Newton’s mechanistic theories. Goethe’s scientific method “makes phenomena transparent to their own lawfulness,” as Prof. Amrine put it. Instead of the deistic-mechanistic metaphysics and calculative-quantitative methods that came with the Galilean-Newtonian scientific revolution, Goethe developed his own processual and organic approach to nature (an approach whose philosophical implications were first developed by Schelling and later made more explicit by Rudolf Steiner). His organicism was rooted in the qualitative structure-dynamics of experience itself, rather than the calculable motion of “external matter.” “External matter,” I’d argue, is among the most abstract concepts imaginable by the human mind. Goethe instead remained faithful to appearances and to common sense, as Aristotle long ago prescribed. The Faustian magician-priests of the modern techno-scientific revolution, of course, had other plans. External mechanistic matter was as real as it gets, and modern science’s job was to gain control over it. Modern science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We should dream it and use it more wisely than we do.

How could Goethe have been so mistaken about his future influence? He is not remembered as a great scientist, as the creator of an alternative but no less “modern” scientific worldview and methodology. Newton’s Optics is still esteemed as the paragon of scientific treatises by most historians and philosophers of science, while most people have either never heard of Goethe’s color theory, or have summarily dismissed it as some kind of an alchemical throwback.

But maybe this is the wrong question… Is Goethe really mistaken? It could be that he is still ahead of his time scientifically. Could it be that, in another generation, not only Darwin but Goethe too will be celebrated as a discoverer of “evolution”? Actually, Darwin only used the word “evolution” once in the 6th edition of Origin of Species. For good reason (at least from the perspective of the mechanistic metaphysics he inherited from the scientific revolution): the concept of evolution is inherently teleological in that it implies the unfolding of something enfolded, the rolling out of a plan, etc…. ya know, “teleology.” Goethe’s natural science, like Schelling’s and Whitehead’s and Bergson’s and Teilhard’s, does not attempt to explain away meaning, purpose, and value in the universe, but rather aims to simultaneously elucidate and deepen our understanding and experience of human teleology by rooting it in the teleogenic capacity of the cosmos itself. The question is no longer “What must human meaning/purpose/value be if nature is really mechanical/dull/void?”– The question rather becomes “What must nature be such that human teloi are possible?”

Of course, I just disqualified myself in the eyes of the scientifically-minded for admitting to belief in teleology. “Evolution teleological? Clearly you don’t understand science and evolution! Or worse, you’re not even being scientific at all, you’re being religious!”

Only a scientifically illiterate religious nut could believe, for example, that “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” Hutson uses this example (it originated in a 2009 study by psychologists from Boston University) in one of his comments to Grant in an effort to display the absurdity of teleology. He suggests Grant’s [and my own, in this post] assumption about such nut cases and their beliefs “is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later.” Teleology does seem absurd when framed in such a way. But it need not be framed in such a way. Hutson himself relies upon a teleological argument of a different sort when he mobilizes the idea of transcendentally imposed universal and necessary “physical laws” that contingent and particular natural bodies are required to obey. This is pure deism, regardless of Hutson’s preference for the Spinozist flip that has nominally replaced Deus with Natura sometime between Newton’s and our own day. The telos in modern science’s view of nature is the cosmic machine’s pre-planed “design.” For Newton, this telos was designed by an all-powerful “designer” or “divine engineer.” Hutson, I assume, prefers to speak of random quantum fluctuations giving rise to the laws governing our universe, which is just one of infinitely many more randomly arising universes, most of which have no order at all and certainly do not have intelligent life. This is a strange sort of teleology, whether in its early modern deistic or late modern atheistic phase: it makes the human seem a stranger in nature by transforming our common sense experience of ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos as alive into an epiphenomenal illusion projected upon what is really just mechanical matter in motion. How strange, that rather than looking deeper into nature to understand how our human teleological creativity is possible, modern science has denied such creativity to nature, thereby detaching human egoic consciousness both from its own creativity, as well as from the unconscious (but still experiential!) creativity of nature.

There are yet other ways of framing teleology, like that of the organic evolutionary thinkers I mentioned above. Whitehead and Bergson in particular offer devastating critiques (both philosophical and scientific critiques) of the “spatialized” conception of time guiding modern mechanistic science from Newton to Einstein. Rather than thinking that the future somehow reaches back in time to cause the past (as when the evolution of photosynthesis somehow causes the sun to exist), they came to think of future possibilities as luring the present decisions of every organism, such that plant life is understood to be the further expression of an activity that, 4.5 billion years ago, had only achieved the sun-like phase of its organic development. Plants are quite literally the further flowering of the sun. You could say, then, that plants are part of the sun’s purpose. As Goethe said in a slightly different context (eye-sight instead of plant photosynthesis): “The eye must be something like the sun, otherwise no sunlight could be seen.” This is not to imply that the future can somehow be seen in advance, as though the sun knew life was coming. It is more as if the light of the sun discovered for the first time what it truly is only once it had created life on earth. Life is the dreaming of light, not its “design.” Indeed, this process of the universe’s self-discovery through evolution may only have just begun. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

2 Replies to “Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature?”

  1. Excellent post, Matt.

    Terrence of Agent Swarm gave a good explanation of the kind of thinking that leads to malcomprehension of teleology. He used the term “concept blindness” to describe when someone is fixated on the word, especially in its ordinary or “accepted” useage, and not the concept indicated by the word. Hence, as you point out, when scholars hear “teleology” they always think Aristotle, Aquinas, or something along those lines, *and* if “concept blind” refuse to understand any other meaning. I have also called this “word magic” in a post, though I was referring more to the rhetorical use of “concept blindness.”

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s