Teleological laws

I’m re-reading William Dembski’s Being as Communion, which I reviewed back in 2014 in a long series of posts starting here, partly because it’s interesting and partly to see what he says about the human soul for an enquiry over at Peaceful Science.

One major point worth reiterating is that, contrary to the common anti-ID rhetoric, Dembski has no interest in proving the existence of God, nor even of providing evidence of his direct involvement in nature. Instead, his claim is that it should be possible to demonstrate teleology in nature, but that the methodology he proposes would be intrinsically incapable of distinguishing the external teleology of, say, God creating by immediate fiat, from the kind of inherent teleology assumed to be within living things by Aristotle.

This distinction is important, because there are, and have always been, a good number of scientists dissatisfied with the ateleological claims of Darwinism, and modern exemplars include James Shapiro and our own Sy Garte. Dembski himself seeks common cause with the celebrated atheist philosopher Tom Nagel, whose book Mind and Cosmos caused a minor furore when it was published in 2012.

Nagel’s position is, at root, a denial of materialism as an inadequate account of reality (anyone here disposed to argue with that?). He suggests that, outside the physical realm (in Dembski’s terms, within the realm of non-material information) there are teleological laws which predispose living things towards particular goals which, under the essentially random processes favoured by materialists, be that Darwinian or neutral change, they would be unlikely to reach.

Such laws would be probabilistic in nature – “covered by a probability distribution” in Dembski’s words – not determining outcomes, but decreasing the odds for them by some degree, so that nature would be biased toward the necessary constituents of life, towards viable species, towards irreducible complexity or any other outcome of vanishingly low probability under known physical conditions.

But before considering either the proposed laws or the probabilities, let me as an aside sketch why such “biases” must exist, if they do, outside the conventional physicalist understanding of the genome. To whatever degree one agrees or disagrees with the original conception of the genetic code as semantic (read the early work of Watson and Crick or, at length, Hubert Yockey), it’s essential arbitrariness is crucial. It is only because DNA (and RNA) can carry any sequence of nucleotides indeterminately that it can code any and every form of life. So, speculations on early DNA evolution by those like Yaris aside, DNA is as necessarily ateleological as the alphabet must be if it is to be used for everything from shopping lists in Afrikaans to epic poetry in Latin.

But that flexibility need not be true of whatever processes govern the sequence of DNA (and also the non-genetic features of life). If final causation exists at all in life (and that includes both intrinsic teleology and any externally-willed purpose of God towards any goal from the appearance of mankind to the whole biosphere), then it must operate in some way to determine otherwise indeterminate matters, including genomic sequences beyond the range of chance. That is what design, defined as Dembski does in its broadest sense of “end-directeness,” entails. Information, to Dembski, is the exclusion of possibilities, and whether this exclusion is directed by God or by a natural agent, towards some end, it is design by definition.

And yet the concept of “teleological laws” seems rather mystical. In that, as Dembski points out, they must be far more information-rich than physical laws to achieve specific ends, that is fair. But actually, it is the concept of “laws of nature” itself that is mystical and even, on most understandings, fundamentally theological (as Ed Feser points out in his book on Scholastic Metaphysics). Where do even ordinary physical laws reside, and how are they imposed universally on matter?

It is even more nebulous to consider “probabilistic laws.” We may think of, say, the gas laws as “statistical”, but actually they are statistical summations of determinate, though unknown, individual movements of molecules. A probabilistic law seems an oddity on reflection – imagine a divine commandment: “Thou shalt not steal 70% of the time,” or even to Israel as a nation, “Love the Lord your God, according to a Gaussian distribution curve.” That’s not a law, but a guideline near-impossible to follow.

But if, like Feser, one cashes out the concept of laws of nature in terms of the specific powers of entities, rather than abstract rules imposed upon them, I think Nagel and Dembski do better with their teleological “laws” too. So here’s an alternate way to view them, based on actual teleological examples in nature.

Descartes, conceiving only the human soul as immaterial and teleological, regarded animals as passive packages of inert matter – as automatons. Though evolutionary science still pays lip service to that via genetic determination of behaviour, the more common assumption now is that animals display true (teleological) intention, however far below human rational choice that falls.

So a cheetah, for example, has the “powers” necessary both to hunt, and to form the intention to hunt, based on hunger, bloodlust or whatever other motivations it has. Once formed, the intention is quite definite, as is the action that follows when it chases down a gazelle. The probability of this “teleological law to hunt”, which is actually an expression of the cheetah’s nature, is 1. But the probability of the outcome of a kill is far less than that (I’m told to around 50%). The reason for that is the opposing powers, especially of the prey, but also of accidents like the terrain, injury and so on. So the cheetah is teleologically directed towards its hunting goal, but the achievement of the goal is probabilistic.

This is a far better way to look at probability, and demystifies it to a great extent. We don’t have to postulate a law of hunting that is probabilistic, but rather a power of hunting that is limited by circumstances.

It seems to me that if this is what we see in the macro-behaviour of teleological agents like cheetahs, than it’s less of a stretch to envisage comparable powers at lower levels of life, including not only the the simple chemotactic teleology of the protozoan after a meal, but perhaps the business end of evolution too.

Now you may respond that the cheetah’s intentions depend on a sophisticated nervous system granting it a degree of intelligence. But actually we have no better idea of what enables animals to have intentions than we do of what enables us to have free will. Descartes, and centuries of scientists after him, saw animals as mere automata. Eliminative materialists deny that even we humans have a will, even though we experience it, and exercise it, moment by moment, but theirs is a minority position. So intention is no less mysterious at the physiological level than it is at the molecular level – and the mystery cannot be answered simply by saying “Brain.”

So if we cannot explain human intention, though it undoubtedly exists, there seems no prima facie case for denying some kind of teleological powers – Nagel’s teleological laws – at some lower level, just because we cannot explain them. In neither case do they easily, if at all, reduce to materialistic conceptions – which is just tough cookies for materialists, and shouldn’t trouble Christians one bit.

If such powers do exist, it opens up a whole new world of potential explanations for the mysteries of life in general, and of evolution in particular. The only question would be, who would pursue such empirical studies, since we are told firmly that we are stuck with a science that doesn’t do non-material causes or deal in final causation?

Ah well, it seemed quite promising there for a bit.

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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