Finality beyond biology

I can’t have been more than eight when a Sunday School teacher told me that God lights the stars in the sky at night to show the way. Mr Sutton, his name was. Even now I think he was being simplistic given the age-group – but then not all my fellows watched the Brains Trust on Sunday afternoons. I, however, had the Boys Book of Astronomy, and a mother with a strong skeptical streak, so with all the scientistic priggishness of my advanced years I told him he was wrong, and that the start were giant, distant balls of gas like the sun, and shone all the time rather than only at night.

It was only a few years later (and not through Sunday School) that I had become a Christian, and was out one bright moonlit night. I remembered the Genesis 1 passage that calls the moon the “lesser light to rule the night,” and was reflexly considering astronomical truths and the moon’s capture (or expulsion, whatever the theory then was) until I suddenly thought, “But it makes a darned good night-light too.” Genesis, in fact, speaks far more functionally than mere illumination: in our urbanity we forget how vital astronomical cycles have been for agriculture, and even for hunting before that. It was only when folks like the Babylonians and early moderns took a more global scientific approach that essential astronomy became speculative astrology. For most ages, including for the writer of Genesis,the function of the moon has been to enable man to plant his crops at the right time and stay alive – and secondarily to see his way at night.

My last-but-one post introduced the contrast between conservationism (philosophical, not ecological) and concurrentism, somewhat unfairly marginalising the third option, occasionalism. Of course my specific interest was to show how that cashes out in two different types of theistic evolution: the prevalent modern type, exemplified in much BioLogos writing being grounded in conservationism (agreeably to Enlightenment presuppositions); and the historic type of Warfield and his ilk drawing on the concurrentism of classical theology.

I suggested that the former agrees only too well with materialistic and naturalistic science, because conservationism has an innate tendency towards deism. Secondary causes are so autonomous that it is not only unnecessary, but misleading, to consider God’s role in them beyond sustaining their existence. Any teleology (final causation) displayed in the world can only be that inherent in the laws and initial conditions of the cosmos. For God to “intend mankind” can only mean, excluding the “coercive” “interference” of miracles, to set up a finely-tuned cosmos capable of producing him autonomously. And given what we know of contingency in nature, nobody seriously believes now that laws and initial conditions could determine a particular species, let alone a particular individual. These must therefore be concluded to be outside God’s direct purposes.

I want to look at some further conequences here. Whatever the natural mechanisms involved in evolution, the whole meta-theory revolves around answering one question: “How do organisms arrive at their function?” Natural selection, in its quasi-teleogical way, tends towards – and only towards – whatever will aid survival. Sexual selection is even more teleological (if it really is a separate mechanism) but still has one basic cause and one basic effect.

Life gets a little more complicated if one considers Gould’s “spandrels” – a function towed along passively behind a selected variation that is either irrelevant to survival, or becomes subject to selection itself. Neutral changes may account for all kinds of things on which selection doesn’t act at all: it may be that the shape of the nose that attracts you to your wife has been fixed by neutral mechanisms. If so, on evolutionary grounds it has no purpose, or function, whatsoever. Your liking for it, if that too is determined by neutral mechanisms, is biologically fortuitous. The relationship is a pure epiphenomenon.

But conservationism, if truly the way God acts, cannot be restricted to biology: it is a metaphysical and theological position too. We saw in the last post how it limits God’s active participation in the world to miracle – and to an external, intrusive and “uneconomical” form of miracle at that. Apart from any broad purpose God might have for the evolutionary system he set up, within that system the causes and effects operating are autonomous – that is, they are exactly what science is potentially capable of detecting, and no more. So if the astonishing patterns and colours found on deep-sea creatures are caused, biologically, by random drift not subjected to selection because of the darkness, then they are not only biologically undirected and purposeless, but theologically so as well.

Similarly then, the cute shape of your wife’s nose, and your own tendency to feel gooey and kiss her when you see it, if there is an explanation by secondary causes, means nothing beyond those causes. It’s no more appropriate to thank God for them than it is to thank the neighbour who uses dynamite to clear his drains for manuring your vegetables.

Under mere conservationism, if the moon is the result of gravitational accretion, tidal forces, or whatever, then that is all it can be theologically too: those efficient and material causes are fully autonomous. The whole astronomical pattern of the moon’s phases and cycles, on which nearly every human culture has relied for survival, may be a useful coincidence – but it cannot possibly be part of God’s intention for the moon, for he has set nature free from his final causation. Except at the coarsest level, conservationism excludes final causation from the world. Needless to say if it does so at the level of astronomy, it does so at the level of human life as well. There can only be one set of causes and outcomes operating: natural events cannot be providential. There is no path for them to be so, apart from nature-stopping miracles.

Concurrentism, however, is very much more closely wedded to final causation, meaning in this case not just the Aristotelian final causation within the secondary causes of nature (worthy of exploration in itself) but the total planning and governance of the immanent God within his Creation.

All we do as intelligent beings is based on final causation – and unlike efficient causation it is not a uni-dimensional concept. When I used the example of Jimi Hendrix playing God Save the Queen in my first post of this series, the means he used to play it – fingers and musical gear – might either succeed or have unforeseen consequences like breaking a string or falling off the stage. In efficient causation, A+B=C, with some margin for error producing an unexpected D.

I suggested Hendrix’s final purpose to be “to get the English punters going.” But that need not – and I’m sure wasn’t – his only purpose. He could have wished to make an artistic statement, or a political point, or impress a particular girl in the press corps, or annoy the bass-player if he hated it, etc, etc – and all these things might be true at the same time.

And so God, working in nature and governing every secondary cause (through concursus) can not only ensure the direct functional outcomes we call “fitness”, and not only (like a renaissance architect) use spandrels as a positive tool rather than an architectural accident, but fulfil purposes beyond the organism too: to build balanced ecosystems, or even to create beauty for his own sake – or for ours. Or even, perhaps for the creatures’ pleasure – some of them (like our pony and the local fox) certainly seem to admire the view across the valley.

The question of beauty is a reminder that “function” is too narrow a word to encompass the final causes that are possible through divine concurrence. Concurrence enables a complete trajectory both for natural, and human, history, the setting of eschatological goals that give meaning to all the intermediate stages, both those accessible through science and those that make sense only theologically.

The hymn writer Graham Kendrick (with whom I played a couple of gigs back in the day) had a song on his first album about the natural world. It included the lines:

And so I asked you why the blackbird
Learned the song that he sings
And why the butterfly
wears colours on her wings
And you told me it was your desire
To set my heart on fire
In my grey world to colour everything.

Now Graham was no fool. The words were meant poetically, and did not signify that the sole reason for the blackbird’s song or the butterflies patterns were to please him on an evening walk. But concurrence implies that secondary efficient causation does not tell the whole story of the world – natural selection and cultural inheritance, perhaps, for the blackbird; drift, sexual selection, mimicry or camouflage all possible for the butterfly. But explaining how something arrived doesn’t necessarily tell you what it is, even biologically. Concurrence makes it possible to understand how God might also intend to build a beautiful world to inspire both worship and human joy – and how he might even purposefully bring a particular blackbird song, a particular butterfly and a particular student together on a summer’s evening for some significant purpose.

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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