Theology of nature – final causation

Something odd happened during the history of the mechanical philosophy that, in effect, gave us the theology of nature which now forms our default thinking. Bacon and his chums dispensed with teleology within nature (inherent teleology) with the aim of removing Aristotelian superstition and glorifying God as the only will operating in nature. And God’s purposes for nature (extrinsic teleology) were excluded from scientific study because they were considered intractable. Science would deal only with an entirely passive nature operating under efficient causes only.

That exclusion of teleology was not the odd thing (though it was arbitrary and theologically motivated). The odd thing was that, just as Descartes’s removal of “mind” from the realm of nature led, in time, to the very denial of mind as a reality, so the removal of teleology from natural philosophy led to the denial of its very existence. This was particularly strange when it was, somehow, applied to God, with even some Christians refusing not only to see God’s purposes in natural creation, but denying that he has any.

And so in the origins debate, there is often great hesitation in accepting talk about God’s having specific purposes in evolution, and attempts are apparently made to explain his creation in Baconian terms of purely efficient causation: he makes the world to see what it will do.

But nature without purpose is not theistic (still less Christian), and so that denial of finality is not part of a theology of nature. Within the framework I have been developing in this series, God’s will lies behind all that happens in the world, as he governs and directs all things towards the ends for which he has created them. In that framework we have to agree with Aristotle and Aquinas in the general thesis that every event has finality as part of its causation: either God causes it to happen by his external will (extrinsic teleology), or he creates something with inherent purposes of its own (intrinsic teleology), in which case he causes things to happen indirectly or instrumentally, through secondary causes.

The Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of teleology is very broad, seeing the lawlike behaviour of entities as the basic level of teleology. Hence masses always tend to attract each by gravity; isotopes tend to decay to certain endpoints with a certain half-life, and so on. Since we have already included a category of “regularity” to our theology of nature, this is merely a reminder that “laws of nature,” like human laws, are always directed to particular divine ends, albeit of the most general kind.

More interesting is that category of activity in nature forbidden by the early modern scientists – intrinsic teleology. This, as I’ve often said before, is impossible to eradicate in practice, sneaking in the back door in living things in terms like “biological function”, “homeostasis” and so on. It was renamed “teleonomy” primarily to convey its supposedly illusory nature as an epiphenomenon of efficient causation. When your theory of evolution is based on contingent efficient causes, the end result of a functioning liver or eye must be viewed as an epiphenomenon, which is conveyed in the word “teleonomy”, the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions.

At one extreme, most of us will agree that “teleonomy” is close to the basic idea of intrinsic teleology in Aristotle. An amoeba is positively phototaxic presumably because of relatively simple chemical interactions with photons. In our theology of nature, these are close to lawlike – and open to modulation by God’s special providence working through concurrence.

In a recent thread on Peaceful Science, however, Neil Rickert pointed out how the apparently truly voluntary acts of higher animals can affect their evolution (and so genuinely affect the direction of the world’s history in ways not reducible to natural laws). This is a very sound observation, for the days when animals were regarded as mere automata within Descartes’s res extensa are long gone. Indeed, the pendulum has arguably swung too far the other way, with even some scientists being keen to accord the status and rights of “people” to animals.

The Bible seems to take for granted that animals are genuinely sentient, but significantly different from people. To take one small example, animals are held in some way accountable for the blood of humans in Gen 9. This cannot imply a full moral responsibility – but does imply that animals make real choices within the capacities of their natures. Their choices are far more limited than human free-will, but they make true choices – and have done, in an old earth scenario, for many hundreds of millions of years.

The most developed scientific theory dependant on this is niche construction theory, in which animals empowered with both a will to survive and the ability to behave in novel ways can make the best use of the genetic hand evolution has given them, by seeking out the most beneficial ecological niches. But even under longer established theories of random variation and natural selection, the decisions animals make may complicate adaptation significantly: the individual bearing an important new beneficial variation may jump the wrong way when attacked by a predator, and the evolutionary trajectory will thereby be altered.

Animals, in other words, can no longer be treated as merely passive products of the laws of nature, but like human beings are active moulders of nature. If that were the whole story, the world in which we originated may have been no more inevitable than we hope nuclear annihilation to be.

If, then, we want to say that God has purposes in the history of the world – and one purpose on which most Christians seem to agree is the arrival of mankind more or less as he is – then the “choice contingency” of the creatures has to be subject to those purposes in some way. Another purpose of God in creation is also made clear in Scripture – that although it has value in its own right, God made the world for people formed in his image. It was always intended to arrive at a state in which it would be of benefit to us, and capable of government by us. So once again, animal choices must have been subject to God’s governance.

That is, it must be subject to them if we have rejected the “open process theology” in which, if God has purposes at all, they are vague and prone to being modified or even perverted by the created order – a candidate for a poor designed system if there ever was one. We have already discussed in previous posts how there is no hint in revealed Scripture of God’s intention to be governed by creation rather than the reverse, so it ought to be off the table.

But one must repeat that if indeterminacy is built into the universe, either in the form of ontological randomness or creaturely choices totally autonomous of God – and that with the specific theological intention that God should not “call all the shots” and determine the universe, then one has to abandon such divine purposes as the arrival of mankind by evolution or a creation moulded to mankind’s needs. You can’t have both, because God can no more determine the undetermined than he can make “Yes” to be “No” at the same time.

And so God’s government must somehow encompass the choices of advanced creatures (and allow them to live by such choices), and yet also be able to direct them to his chosen ends. This is, in fact, precisely the same metaphysical issue as that of human free will, in lesser degree but over much greater time-scales.

Note that this issue differs significantly from most of the “free creation” theologies, in which the free agent is usually a personified “Nature” or “Evolution,” and the “liberty,” when closely examined, that of being subjected to random changes. Here, by contrast, I am talking about true, though highly circumscribed, creaturely choice.

We do, however, have a tool for the governance of such choices in our theology of nature, in the form of the concurrent providence of God, which I have already applied to the limiting case of human free choice, and which is even more applicable to the more limited volitional repertoire of animals. The operating principle is the same – Christ, the sustainer of all things, maintains a limiting control on the actions of the creatures with the aim of assisting them to achieve their best ends – that is, the purpose for which he made them.

As we saw in the last post he does this on the core principle underlying the whole creation – that of love; the same love shown in his death for the world on the Cross. His care is intimate and individual, as it is with us – for that is the nature of love. As Psalm 145 says:

The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.
You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made.

Perhaps seeing God’s providential government in this “soft” case of animal volition enables us to rest a little easier with the perennial disquiet over God’s government of our own free will. One way or another, freedom and divine government are not incompatible, since both are products of the same eternal principle – the self-giving love of Christ.

But whether it makes you more comfortable or not, the issue will not go away – if you want intrinsic teleology to be autonomous from God, you cannot also attribute to God specific outcomes such as the evolution of mankind. Your choice.

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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2 Responses to Theology of nature – final causation

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    A recurrent theme seems to be that God gives us (all creatures) food and drink. Every day this is needed.
    It is up to us what to do then.

    There is successive stage or degree involved here.

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