Distinguishing the sources of teleology

I mentioned briefly in my last post one of the things that struck me most from reading Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0. And that was the fact that intrinsic teleology and external teleology are not mutually exclusive, and yet might not be easy to distinguish.

Marshall’s take on the more recently discovered non-Neodarwinian mechanisms of evolution is the same as mine: that they all to a greater or lesser extent involve teleology, or goal directedness, or final causation. It’s also the view that Sy Garte took in the light of his own recent, independent, research.

I mentioned before that Marshall takes this finding down a particular theological route, basically in opposition to versions of Intelligent Design that posit the external direction of evolution, and in favour of a kind of Pre-Thomistic Aristotelianism in which all teleology is built into the physical structure of the Universe, in modern terms at the Big Bang. Following in this Darwin’s footsteps, he sees “a grandeur in this view of life”, and therefore has a preference for this essentially Deistic view of God which governs his interpretation of the science.

The rediscovery of the inherent teleology of living things was grudgingly given a limited role by Ernst Mayr as “teleonomy”. He defined it in a way that opponents of Marshall must struggle with, in terms of “systems operating on the basis of a program of coded information”. No code, no teleonomy then – just the analogical appearance of teleolomy, which is exactly what Dawkins argues about the illusion of design.

It’s even worse than that, actually, because since the word “teleonomy” was coined for the express purpose of avoiding the true final causation of teleology, defining it by another “mere analogy” (coding) is another example of “science” as “riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas”. Science suddenly becomes a lot less metaphorical if you simply admit codes and teleology both, and stop insisting that everything obvious is an illusion.

But even Mayr did not allow teleology into the process of evolution itself, although that’s the way it seems to me things are shaping up, as the Modern Synthesis begins to crumble like the aging concrete of Modernist architecture.

My judgement is as subjective as Darwin’s or Marshall’s of course, but to me “there is a grandeur in this view of life” that knocks spots off the mechanistic and mindless mechanisms of random variation and natural selection (and, of course, neutral drift). Living things become, again, the true brothers and cousins we always experienced, rather than the automata of Descartes, or the mere chemical assemblages of molecular biology.

It makes much sense to me that, as described by McClintock and Shapiro, organisms under stress will make directed changes to their genomes that stand a good, but not infallible, chance of success. This is a parallel to the wonderfully skillful and purposeful, but fallible, survival strategies devised by creatures at the large scale. They hunt, but often lose the prey. They exploit niches, but sometimes the niches disappear. But when Marshall substitutes for blind evolutionary processes the inherent intelligence of cells, in describing the formation of the bacterial flagellum in all its sophistication, I have to pause for thought.

At the physical level, is it really plausible that there are sufficient design capabilities built into the structure of cells to account for life in all its vast array? Do cells have the grasp of physics to render compound eyes close to optimal?

And at the theological level Scripture still, despite modern biology, reserves the role of creation to God, through the Logos, by the Spirit, alone – not even the angels being granted a share. It is quite possible, then, and consistent with the Father God of Christianity, both that inherent teleology exists in the evolution of life, as a creational gift, and that God creates by extrinsic teleology somewhere in the process. The question to me is, how would one ever tell the difference?


Paul McCartney famously dreamed the melody of Yesterday, and several notable scientific breakthroughs have come through dreams. In fact it’s a commonplace amongst creative people that “the Muse” may achieve through one what is not within one’s own capabilities. How often have you heard even non-religious artists say, “It’s a gift from God”?

Michael Polanyi would account for much of this this by the non-propositional knowledge inherent in any skilled activity, which he calls “personal knowledge” and which I, in my medical days, termed “nous“. As such it’s mysterious and essential, and also undervalued, but not supernatural. But history is also full of the belief that people may, literally, be channels for the divine. Our word “enthusiasm” comes directly from Greek “enthousiasmos“, or possession by a god. This was the basis of divine oracles.

If you’re inclined to discount this as superstition, remember that such an idea, in a gentler form, is absolutely intrinsic to orthodox Christianity. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit at our conversion to Christ. Indeed, “prevenient grace” is the activity of the Spirit in our lives that leads to our conversion, just as grace from the Spirit enables all our subsequent good works. The effective preacher is not the one who is full of theology, but the one who is full of the Spirit. Gifts of the Spirit, according to Paul, are all “manifestions” (phaneroses)of the indwelling Spirit – he who speaks speaks prophetically speaks the revelations of God.

My point is most graphically made by the apostolic miracles. Peter and John perform a “notable miracle” in the healing of the blind beggar in the Temple, but Peter has to deny the role of “their own power and godliness” in this very physical change within the world. It was the risen and glorified Jesus who healed the man (what price the theology that excludes divine action on the grounds that it makes God just another cause in the world? Damn the logical sophistry – the divine risen Jesus healed the lame man.)

But note the need Peter perceived to disclaim his own role in the matter, lest the crowd be misled by appearances. This is even clearer in Paul’s healing of another lame man at Lystra, when the crowd immediately assumed Paul and Barnabas were Hermes and Zeus and wanted to sacrifice to them. Yet the pagans were right to recognise divine teleology in the healing – they just mistook the extrinsic teleology of the indwelling Spirit for intrinsic teleology in Paul and Barnabas as gods.

In the spiritual sphere, then, it is extremely difficult to be precise about where human activity ends and where divine activity, in humans, begins. The cynical unbelievers were able to attribute everything that the apostles, or the Lord Jesus, did to human powers, sorcery or trickery.

Now, one of the tenets of my thinking on creation is that there is no good reason to believe that the God who reveals his ways in human redemption has entirely different ways in dealing with his creation. Semi-deism is an unstable theological position – and unscriptural, to boot. That is especially so once one escapes from the materialist view of nature as a “machine”, or a collection of machines, and returns to the Aristotelian – and biblical, actually – idea that it is a “being”, or a community of beings. God’s care for his obedient creatures is directly comparable to his care for sinful people. “There is a grandeur in this view of life…”

If evolution turns out to be more teleological than the arid Modern Synthesis, with its clear Epicurean agenda, has allowed, then it’s likely to be very hard to pin down the source of that teleology, based on the model of God’s Holy Spirit in the human world, who is the same Spirit said, in Scripture, to empower the created world. Currently, both forms of teleology are opaque to science, which in its present form has, since Bacon, excluded teleology (final causes) from its purview, and also refuses to see God as either a valid efficient cause or a teleological agent, through the insistence on methodological naturalism.

If life is indeed inherently teleological, only a fundamental change in the metaphysics of science will allow life to be understood better – Marshall is quite right in that. But if God, as a source of extrinsic teleology, were to remain excluded from any new methodology, the inevitable result would be a kind of panpsychism. Such a thing surfaces not only in the work of Christians like Perry Marshall and agnostics like Paul Davies, but in many of the theorists of Theistic Evolution before the Francis Collins era, who were often greatly influenced by Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, for the simple reason that it seemed to avoid the need to scrap methodological naturalism.

But to attribute to creatures within nature agency which, properly, belongs to God is nothing but idolatry, and indeed the very paradigmatic kind of idolatry Paul describes in Rom. 1:22-23.There is a grave danger of ceasing to be materialists only to become pagans.

In this, at least, Robert Boyle and the other “mechanical philosophers” were right – to admit teleology but exclude God is the path to forming idols.

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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3 Responses to Distinguishing the sources of teleology

  1. Robert Byers says:

    I have desired my dreams to help me figure things out but never have. THIS COMES from a verse in proverds, can’t quote , that says dreams are a aid to mens figuring things out.
    I bet you don’t know that and its surprising to me for you to bring it up.
    Yes the bible is pro-dreams.
    However dreams are simply, simply, (I think even Aristotle pointed this out) just us (soul) observing our memories. Since while sleeping our senses are turned off our SOUL only can look at old memories.
    So its a option it goes over subjects we think about a lot.
    A musician, thinking always about tunes, easily would occasionaly have a new tune work itself up in a dream(memory). Most failures but the good ones remembered.
    no magic and not from God.
    just going over amemories and maybe in a more relaxed way.
    Our dreams are not different entities but simply what we do when awake.
    Dreams are vivid like real life because real life is just the same mechanism as dreams.
    Soul watching the memory.
    I think dreams does suggest a soul however some denier could just say the brain watches the memory when sleeping.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      The mention of dreams was only to introduce the theme of the divine acting through the human, which as been a feature of religion for as long as history.

      But prosaic as most of our dreams may be (and I’ve a couple of times had the experience of composing songs in dreams, on one occasion dreaming of teaching the particular “hook” of the song to a church congregation), there is plenty of it going on in the Bible from the Spirit of God, from Genesis on. Interesting to think that Jesus would not have been “Jesus of Nazareth” except for a dream warning Jospeh not to settle back in Judaea.

      • Robert Byers says:

        There are many famous instances. like Keith richards “satisfaction riff” and John Phillips(Mammas/papoas) famous song, one of them.
        Yet on a curve very likely thousands more were dreamt but upon reflection later that day were no good.
        i see it as simply the memory doing what it does while awake.

        I wish i could remember that Proverbs verse. it directly said dreams help people figure things out.

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