In my recent long essay, I contrasted the commonest modern manifestions of theistic evolution with the approach of TE’s first representatives in Darwin’s time. I showed that the latters’ central distinctive was divine teleology. This contrasts directly with the cautiously expressed undirectedness of evolution in the Origin of Species, due to Darwin’s near-atheist agnosticism, and even more with the insistent secularism of Huxley and his successors, which has become the default position in biological science.
I also demonstrated that modern TE, formulated academically by the science and faith scholars (mainly liberal Protestant and Catholic) and popularised by authors often from within the biological professions (also multi-confessional but with a higher proportion of avowed evangelicals), has tended to make a virtue of ateleology by developing a “hands-off” theology of nature’s freedom. This is heavily dependent on the personalist view of God that began to diverge from historic theology in the nineteenth century.
The early TEs expressed their teleology primarily in terms of design. In this it is clear they, like Darwin, were influenced by the natural theology of William Paley , but their concept of design, in the context of Darwin’s theory, was more centred on intention than mechanism, ie that although one could say that species arose from variation and natural selection, one must still say that their complexities and beauties were God’s work. God truly did create, in detail, through evolution.
This contrasts with the spirit of modern theistic evolution, in which the emphasis on God’s non-interference and the autonomy of natural processes renders specific outcomes both scientifically impossible and theologically undesirable; and in which supposed errors, waste and “immoralities” in living things are taken to exclude God’s detailed intentionality therein.
Those early TEs might, alternatively, have expressed themselves philosophically, in terms of Aristotelian final causation, and indeed occasionally they did so. As Charles Kingsley wrote:
So we will assert our own old-fashioned notion boldly; and more: we will say, in spite of ridicule, that if such a God exists, final causes must exist also. That the whole universe must be one chain of final causes. That if there be a Supreme Reason, He must have a reason, and that a good reason, for every physical phenomenon.
Final cause has, for the Thomistically-challenged, to do with God’s purpose for each of his creatures, and in classical theology this extended to the simplest of inanimate things. God made water to wet things, the sun to light the earth and so on, as well as imposing the form of, say, a fish, on matter in order to help populate the sea.
That’s not to say one can necessarily discern any or all of God’s purposes. There are classic cases like the eye, clearly intended for seeing. But it’s obvioulsy less clear why, for example, God should make hundreds of species of near-identical gnat. The point is, however, that God actually has some purpose(s) in creating all things that exist, or else they could not exist.
This is utterly congruent with Christian theology, which has always taught God’s working out of everything for his own purpose, his creation of all things in heaven and on earth, and his care towards everything he has made. The last is found in plenty of detailed biblical examples from God’s feeding of ravens and clothing the lilies to his giving and taking of individual creatures’ lives. This, as Brian Davies explains well in his The Reality of God andf the Problem of Evil , is the most intimate possible way in which the Creator can be seen as involved in his Creation, demonstrating at once his imminence and supreme transcendence. He is sovereignly and creatively involved with all he has made, at every moment.
In my view, the way modern theistic evolution has subordinated itself to naturalistic science, tailoring its theology to match (or, alternatively, preferring such theology because it meshes so easily with methodological naturalism) has weakened any distinctive contribution it might make to human knowledge and well-being. Its God is largely compartmentalised to personal piety, and has little or nothing to contribute to the scientific project. Indeed, the desire to keep science God-free appears to explain the otherwise unaccountable silence of, say, BioLogos writers on new scientific developments favouring teleogy withinin nature. TE, in other words, by downplaying final causality, has wedded itself to an instrumental, Baconian, vision of science. As Ed Feser says of the scientific enterprise in his book on Aquinas:
Having redefined “success” as the achievement of dramatic technological progress and in general the manipulation of nature to achieve human ends, [the moderns] essentially won a game the Scholastics were not trying to play in the first place … But [the Scholastics’] emphasis was on formal and final causes and the like, because they took these to be more fundamental to our understanding of the nature of things and to yield knowledge that had greater moral and theological significance.
This would matter less if theistic evolution were a purely scientific enterprise, like biology itself. It’s argued, even within TE, that natural science, as the study of natural phenomena, ought to avoid teleology. But theistic evolution, like any science-faith rapprochement, ought to have higher goals than cheer-leading for particular scientific theories. I would argue that those goals should include “the moral and theological significance of things”, and hence their divine formal and final causes.
This is not that strange a view, for science actually already has two distict motivations, though they are often confounded. The first is the Baconian project of taming nature and bending her to the human will. It was Bacon who sought to exclude final causality from science because (as we are often reminded by supporters of science) they are irrelevant to the project of interrogating nature to reveal her practical secrets. One only needs to understand efficient causes to manipulate them. One doesn’t need to know the purpose of a pig if one only intends to use it as a source of genetically-human insulin. One doesn’t care if chickens “ought” to live in the open if efficient egg-production is ones reason for investigating their biology.
But there has always been another strand to science, which is the sheer joy of knowing what the universe is about. Seen theologically it is the desire to think God’s thoughts after him, not so that one can rival his acts, but so that one can honour his wisdom and power. If that is not a major motivation for the science-faith enterprise (and I don’t much care in this particular regard whether that is labelled as Divine Action Project, Creation Science, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution or whatever), then in my view they may all just as well pack up and go home, for all that they will add to human knowledge and wisdom.
But you’ll see from the last paragraph that the “faith” element cannot be separated from the “science” element completely. For a start, if (as in Newton’s or Kepler’s or Maxwell’s case) worship is a motivation for doing science, as much as, say, the desire to discover “useful” things for the benefit of mankind, then it will affect ones whole approach as a researcher.
But in addition, the theological admission of final causation will not only inform the worship of the whole Christian community if it is understood and explained widely, but might actually move science forward in a way that is more productive than naturalistic materialism has proved to do.
Regarding the first, there might be some apologetic purpose in demonstrating that “God must have done it.” But it is much better to show what God did, in all its wisdom, and that includes why he did it – final causality. It’s not particularly edifying, in my view, to give the churches the message of what God didn’t do in creation, especially when that’s often linked to Scripture and the Church having got the fundamentals wrong hitherto.
Regarding the second – moving science forward – I believe final causation, far from being a science stopper, is both a spur to research and a precautionary principle. I’ve already said that some final causality is inscrutable and some self evident. Some is in between – hard to discern, but potentially useful once it is searched out. Failure to consider teleology has now, I think, been clearly shown to have delayed biological progress. It’s now nearly 70 years since Barbara McClintock’s discovery of transposons suggested internal teleology in organisms. Yet she had to stop publishing her results in the fifties because of the abuse she received from the scientific establishment. She finally got a Nobel Prize for it in the eighties, but the significance of her research has yet to have its full impact, and that in the teeth of continued mainstream opposition to her successors such as James Shapiro.
Similarly, for all the controversy over the ENCODE project, there is a strong and informed body of opinion stating that the Junk DNA concept has delayed understanding the function of non-coding DNA for some twenty years. The default position of a scientist working with a belief in final causes would be, “What’s that for?” rather than “How has that error persisted?” (Though actually, without final causes there can be no errors – just observations. Hardly a motivating concept.)
At least in the study of the organisms purpose is commonly assumed, whilst it is denied in principle. The whole business of assigning function is to assign purpose: this chunk of DNA is for that useful protein. Yet it is not only organisms but the whole of nature, and particularly ecology, that shouts out “final causation”, as well it should to the believing scientist, for biblically creation (bara) has to do with the organisation of the world’s function at macro-level, and not the mere existence of objects.
Logically, for instance, it’s as true to say that cleaner fish exist for keeping fish colonies healthy as it does to say that eyes exist to give sight. I wrote a little about ecological systems here. It makes perfect sense to say that wolves exist in the Yellowstone ecology in order to maintain the variety and health of the environment, if you’re willing to accept final causation – and why would a Christian not accept it, except by swallowing the materialist delusion that efficient causes alone explain reality?
There is a practical aspect to this, of course. If you are going to change some aspect of nature – an environment, or a creature’s (or a human’s) genetic makeup, you ought first be asking why (in final cause terms) it was as it was to begin with, on the assumption that there are one or more reasons. You would not assume it was purposeless, but weigh its final causes, if and when uncovered, against the good that might result from interfering with them.
There’s actually a group out there campaigning to save the guinea worm, which the rest of the world is trying to eradicate. It’s bizarrely amusing in using the same kind of language as campaigns against fur-seal culls, yet clearly (to the rest of us) far less convincingly. Yet it does have a point: it may well be that guinea worm is an unmitigated evil and its eradication an untrammeled good, but one should start from the assumption that it has some role in the world’s God-given economy and research that before deciding on destruction. I believe such studies may have been done, but if so the same attention was not given to the possible “reasons” for bacteria to exist, before wholesale introduction of antibiotics. Bacteria were just bad. Now we face the possible failure of the whole antibiotic concept through resistance. Is it not possible that asking teleological questions about what bacteria are for might have led us to better understandings of the issues?
That may seem unscientific, or even an impossible demand. But consider this: a major report from conservation organisations published only today shows that of 3,000 key UK species studied, 60% are declining and 10% are in imminent danger of extinction. One can say without much fear of refutation that this situation is almost entirely the direct or indirect result of Baconian science-technology, which sought to bend nature to man’s will without first making any attempt to ascertain what God’s will for it had been in the first place. Science may not have been responsible for eradicating the wolf from Britain (thus causing in the end our overpopulation of deer), but the blame for most of the rest must go to “improvements” made to our land in the name of scientific progress.
No less a scientist that Stephen Hawking is of the opinion that the earth will be uninhabitable within the next thousand years. What he doesn’t say, but unconsciously admits, is that a biosphere that God has maintained perfectly well for 3.5 billion years would have been killed off in maybe 1,500 years by science and technology’s efforts to improve it. Even the fallen human race had kept it largely intact for millennia before that: it seems sin can damn a race, but it takes science to destroy the whole world.
So I suggest that not only the human race, but science itself, would be better served by taking final causation into account. Who is going to do that if not theistic scientists, and theistic scientists who actually believe in final causation and let it influence their approach to their work? And what groups today are committed to such an approach? I fear it is not the likes of BioLogos, by reason of their naturalistic approach to both science and theology, nor ID or YEC folk, because of their specific sociological agendas.
But somewhere, there may exist successors to the nineteenth century characters I named in my essay – who would no doubt appear to most people, by their philosophical and theological approach, to be throwbacks to the mediaeval age. They’d be more concerned to understand nature in its relationship to God’s will than to manipulate it to our own. They’d even follow the “unscientific” quest to determine some of that will in individual cases. But by that token, they might even be of more long-term practical use to the world than science has actually been thus far.