The Advent of Teleology

I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.

But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.

Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.

Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.

For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.

Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.

It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.

That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.

As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.


2 Responses to The Advent of Teleology

  1. Mike D says:

    I recently read Vilenkin’s book, so I just wanted to comment here. What he’s talking about is the complete opposite of teleology. One of the features of modern inflationary models (the subject of his book) is that the initial conditions did not have to be chosen with great care. Eternal inflation (his forte) also postulates a virtually infinite number of universes, many of which will never birth stars or form galaxies, so finding one that can support life a negligible fraction of the time (in cosmic terms) in a negligible fraction of the immense volume of space is hardly an indication that it was some sort of Aristotlean fourth cause. You might as well say the universe was teleologically designed to produce vast regions of vacuum or lifeless gas giants.

    I also take issue with your language here:
    “For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological.”

    Assumed, not understood, is the operative word. The preponderance of scientific evidence in both cosmology and biology renders teleology obsolete, in that while it could never be “disproved” it is devoid of any predictive or explanatory value.

  2. IntelligentAnimation says:

    Infinite universes indeed, Mike. Desperate materialists claim that there are other universes (how do you know this?) that have different characteristics than our own. They hope to distract us from the REALITY of the only universe we can know…. THIS one.

    While none of us can know if there are undetected infinite universes, it doesn’t change the fact that the evidence indicates teleology in this universe, so teleology does indeed exist, without question. Because it is so overwhelmingly supported by evidence, it is an “understood”, not an “assumption”. An assumption would be your guesses about those other universes.

    Literally ALL of the formations, movements and thoughts of all living things require teleology and nothing whatsoever in biology has been explained by a materialist. Not one thing, let alone rendering the obvious intentional movements of life “obsolete”. If teleology were to cease to exist for a few seconds, we would all be dead before our bodies hit the floor.

    Materialists can not explain the complex molecules that consistently form in living things, but never in non-biotic nature. No molecules, not even nucleic acids, replicate themselves except in living organisms. Materialists can’t explain the precise amount, placement, timing and directionality of trillions of chemical reactions that always move matter in living beings in functional, efficient ways.

    Life is different than non-life. A scientist admits this factual reality. A pseudoscientist, more interested in their atheist religious beliefs, will claim there are other universes where things are different.

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