Ateleology and Christians in the sciences

I’ve argued in my last post  that ateleology is a recent usurper in the domain of science, and therefore that admitting the hypothesis of design would merely be a return to intellectual normality. In July I argued more specifically for teleology in a Christian approach to science , and I want to that revisit that from a slightly different angle in the context of my recent post.


I’ve argued on a number of occasions against methodological naturalism, on the grounds that it usually shades into some form of metaphysical or theological naturalism. But I should nuance that a little. If we accept (as cannot be denied) that God works through secondary causes, there is every reason to investigate those as an independant chain of causes and effects. If it weren’t for the bogeymen that naturalists have raised against allowing God a foot in the door – that all cause and effect would be gone and science destroyed – that shouldn’t need stating at all. No theistic scientist has ever had a lasting problem distinguishing the role of God as First Cause from the laws and processes he employs as second causes.

So one doesn’t really need the term “methodological naturalism”, when one could equally say, “Account for all secondary causes .” But to forbid invoking the Divine at all, on principle, is philosophical naturalism. Nevertheless the scientific end result is the same, and for the sake of peace it is less contentious, once no further cause is found, to say, “Science ends here – the rest is metaphysics.” Note that it is a metaphysical statement to say there is no cause, or that some infinitesimal chance is a cause.

It’s quite different when we come to the question of teleology, or purpose. I would argue that the refusal to permit the discussion of teleology can, in principle, lead science to false, or at least incomplete, conclusions. A simple analogy is warranted.

I write a book about – say – teleology in science. Why does it exist? In terms of cause and effect, there is plenty of useful work to do. One can start simply with the physics of ink and paper, and the nature of the manufacturing process. One can investigate the semantics of written English, and even employ information theory to flesh things out. One could find previous drafts, and talk either about Shannon infomation and errors, or about the altered intellectual environment that might have caused changes. One could look at the other works of the author, or similar authors, and discuss genre, the subculture of philosophy of science, etc etc. At various levels one could explain how it came into existence from nothing – and even speculate about the existence of a writer called Garvey, though in the absence of direct evidence for him all your other conclusions, and the book itself, would nevertheless be perfectly valid.

But one thing, of course, would missing, which is the primary cause – that is, my purpose to present an argument in book form, the teleological reason for its existence. Without that, all the other causes and effects are, if not irrelevant, then misleading on their own. They all look backwards to the first discernible cause (maybe a diary entry saying “Started teleology book today”), when they should be looking forward to the finished product, a purposeful argument in print.

Does that make any difference? Well, yes – an immense difference. If all your investigation is of cause and effect – of process – then a book on teleology is just one possible accidental outcome of a host of events that could easily have become a DVD on cookery. In the end, the book doesn’t mean anything. But as soon as you admit the teleological, the meaning of the end result is everything: your other studies could help elucidate that, but you are much closer to reality: I want to tell you something, and you’re listening out for it (whether or not you agree!). At the very least it enables you to ask “Why was this chapter included?” without looking over your Darwinian shoulder and hastily adding, “Of course, we can’t speak teleologically: the chapter may have derived from a duplication of the Introduction and serves the function of avoiding empty pages.”

Now Christians – even Christians in science – believe that God’s final purpose is the First Cause of everything. He does not simply kick start a process: he decides an end and ensures that events concur to achieve it. In that, he is like us, if you accept anything at all that’s fundamental to the Faith. One might argue that we cannot know God’s ultimate purpose. I’d say Christians can, but that it’s beyond the remit of science: to unite all things in heaven and earth in Christ would be a pretty good expression of it.

But just as in science it’s legitimate (and probably more useful) to work on small parts of the chain of cause and effect, so in teleological science it may be more useful to work with proximate, rather than ultimate purpose. Everyone speaks teleologically about the purpose of chaperonins or bat sonar anyway – how refreshing to be able to treat such statements literally rather than as convoluted analogies. In the end, “What’s this for?” is a more useful question than, “How did this get here?” though the latter may well help explain the first, and is interesting in its own right.

One contemporary example of how this makes a difference is the celebrated Junk DNA debate. Treat repetitive elements as being caused by opportunistic viruses, and you won’t investigate its function too hard. Treat it as probably there for a purpose and you will investigate. Examples could be multiplied.

Ah, but I hear the Christian scientist object, allowing teleology into science will give it a built-in bias towards theism – religion by the back door. So let me get this straight – you believe that God is behind all that happens in this world, and that he is working out his purpose through it. Yet you think it’s better to do science as if this were untrue and to pretend that this purpose does not exist, even though that hinders the progress of science (which tends to benefit from working under truthful assumptions). And this is done to avoid scandalising atheistic scientists, who in their daily methodology pretend that purpose does exist as they speak teleologically, and in their conclusions assume an ateleological wordview you don’t actually share – at least on Sundays.

Where exactly is the bias here?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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