When the first attempts were made at serious natural philosophy by the Greeks two and a half millennia ago, the most fundamental disagreement was between those who held that chance was at the root of the world, and those who considered there was direction to it, telos. In the former category would be the atomists like Democritus and Lucretius, and in reaction to them were those like Plato and, particularly, Aristototle, who held the teleological view.
This, although a metaphysical disagreement, can also be seen as the most basic scientific question, because whatever the philosophical musings of the antagonists, what was to be decided was, “Is this the kind of world that would be best explained by chance, or by teleological order?” Empirical observation of the world and its ways was therefore at the heart of the matter. To quote Aristotle:
Democritus has spoken of these questions but not well, for he assigns the cause too generally without investigating the facts in all cases… This mistake, then, was due to his speaking generally without examining what happens in all cases; but this is what we are to do, for any one who makes any general statement must speak of all the particular cases.
Aristotle, then, in arguing that chance would be expected to result in chaos, not cosmos, needed first to demonstrate from evidence that we indeed inhabit a cosmos, not a chaos. Likewise his four types of causation – material, formal, efficient and final – did not arise merely from contemplation, but from phenomenological observation of the world.
Aristotle’s side was the outright winner as far as the science of the next 2 millennia goes. If he had a competitor at all, it was Plato and his followers, who likewise concluded that teleology was indisputable in the world of physical evidence, whilst envisioning a different system in detail. It was not until the early modern period that Aristotle’s grip on the science market began to be consciously loosened. Why that was needn’t concern us overmuch here, but it was decidedly not over the question of teleology, though it involved a decision to avoid seeking final causes in the scientific enterprise.
Broadly speaking, a form of atomism came back with the likes of Robert Boyle, in order (as its teleological cause!) to remove what was taken to be an excessively autonomous view of nature in Aristotle’s system, which was thought to rob God of his glory. Matter could be viewed as effectively inert, and instead of being seated in the secondary natures of things, teleology was transferred to the laws of God, the divine lawmaker.
I’m not the only one to have pointed out how problematic this is in naturalistic terms, that is when God is methodologically or conceptually removed from the picture. Ed Feser, for example, replies astutely to the common idea of replacing God with natural law:
“The explanation isn’t God, it’s rather the laws of physics, where ‘law of physics’ originally meant ‘a decree of God’ and where I don’t have any worked-out alternative account of what it means.”
Hence the “alternative” explanation, when unpacked, is really either a tacit appeal to God or a non-explanation. In short, either it isn’t alternative, or it’s not an explanation. The utter cluelessness of this stock naturalistic “alternative explanation” would make of it an object of ridicule if it were not so routinely and confidently put forward by otherwise highly intelligent, educated, and widely esteemed people.
This quotation makes it clear that there is a fundamental conceptual gap at the very heart of modern science, but it’s worse that that. The shift of emphasis in early modern science, by invoking unbreakable divine law, presupposed the existence of the teleology that had underpinned science since Democritus and his “random atoms” were demonstrated to be inadequate by Aristotle. The fact that, during the Enlightenment, God was increasingly assumed to be irrelevant led by default to the re-instatement of chance as the basis of everything, without any process of rational justification for the change. Quite the reverse – the continuing appeal to “laws of nature” is a metaphysical commitment to teleology, which is at complete odds with the overt commitment to ateleological forces. In this way, the whole natural science enterprise has become self-contradictory, even incoherent, at the deepest level, even if the surface holds together.
Richard Dawkins’ famous quote is, for all that he is an atheist propagandist, in accord with the current modus operandi of the natural sciences:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
This comes from River out of Eden, a popular science book subtitled “a Darwinian view of life.” Is it then a scientific statement? One might well argue that it’s a metaphysical, even a theological assertion, for all that it poses as science. But in fact it’s a basic empirical claim just as were those of Democritus or Aristotle, back in ancient times.
It’s actually a very bold assertion, because it denies the teleology implied both by Aristotle’s long-lived science of natures, and the law-based teleology that replaced it as the bassis of science. If accepted (whether overtly or tacitly) it dictates the direction that science must go and the kind of results that will be found. If Democritus was, in point of fact, as badly wrong as Plato and Aristotle would suppose, then it will lead science badly off course from empirical truth – especially since, as I have said, it is internally inconsistent in accepting laws but confusedly claiming “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.
It would seem that somewhere along the way during the last couple of centuries, that very first conclusion of natural philosophy – teleology – has been mislaid or badly misconstrued. In order to correct this error, there is clearly a need to return to basics: to the empirical examination of the natural world with a view to refuting (or, per impossibile, confirming) Dawkins’ empirical statement about the actual properties of the universe. That would require a comparison of the two hypotheses – chance and teleology – in some kind of rigorous, preferably mathematical, way in order to expand and improve the more intuitive arguments that prevailed for the Greeks or the early moderns. In other words, one needs to engage in a quantitative science of design in nature if one is to re-establish a stable platform on which the rest of science can rest.
Funnily enough that, at root, is what Intelligent Design is. Yes, the waters have been muddied by accusations of creationism, apocalyptic fears about the end of civilisation, claims that it’s really about God though it cunningly doesn’t mention him, etc. I see that such disinformation has yet again surfaced in the last day or two on BioLogos, in the claim that ID is all about supernatural tinkering in an imperfect natural system. But as William Dembski wrote:
ID is not an interventionist theory. Its only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable. All the design could therefore have emerged through a cosmic evolutionary process that started with the Big Bang. What’s more, the designer need not be a deity. It could be an extraterrestrial or a telic process inherent in the universe. ID has no doctrine of creation.
I don’t see why that’s considered problematic or evasive – the core issue is teleology v chance, exactly as it was for Aristotle, and if the IDM didn’t exist, then responsible scientists ought to invent it in order to resolve the currently incompatible belief in both fundamental chance and fundamental laws not only in biology (though it’s particularly moticeable in evolutionary theory) but in the whole of science. Such a discipline would have to consider new tools for refining Aristotle’s arguments for teleology, but I suspect they’d be bound to look first in areas like information theory and probability, on which Intelligent Design has concentrated.
ID, then, which has been largely disowned by science as well as by many philosophers and theologians, actually in my view retraces the earliest steps of natural science, in order to correct a couple of centuries of collective amnesia by which the fundamental importance of teleology to science has been allowed, on ideological and theological grounds, to lapse into confusion. In that sense it is the most fundamental science being undertaken today.