Finality creeps in everywhere

Sy Garte has a new piece on his blog about a Chinese paper, published in a Western journal, in which some biological function is dealt with, and its suitability to the wisdom of the Creator is remarked.

It appears the paper is not promoting any extraordinary role for the Creator in the paper, but merely treating his ultimate role as an assumption. It is no surprise that there has been a reaction (out of all proportion to the paper’s scientific importance) that the online journal, PLOS One, has abused Science™, and the investigations into failed peer review and closet-Creationism will no doubt lead to retractions and heads rolling around. It is, after all, virtually the end of civilization as we know it.

Sy, a scientist of course in the established tradition, though a believer in the Creator, agrees that such statements are out of place in science. I suggested on his site that this assumption that God may not be mentioned in science may be as much cultural imperialism as anything. God was routinely mentioned in Newton, Kepler and even Darwin’s works, which belong to the same scientific tradition. There has not, as far as I am aware, ever been a worldwide conference to change the criteria under which science must be done and published in order to be science.

Indeed, as I pointed out to Sy, there is no reason why the diverse regional traditions in science (masked by our own Western ethnocentrism that assumes all Science is done in English by liberally minded skeptics) should be bound by English or American conventions.

But I want to look here at the more general implications of objecting to the underlying assumption of a Creator in this paper. There is no scientific justification to excluding the mention of God, as such, from science. The more valid philosophical objection is that science, since early modern times, has explicitly excluded the idea of final causality from its purview.

Now, I have been made aware by the response to my last post that many people may read this without ever having thought about the different varieties of causes that really need to be considered when science meets religion, though we have often mentioned them here. This piece may be a good introduction.

The basic idea is that science can, and should, only deal with “material efficient causes”, ie which physical events lead to other physical events. A gene mutates, for example, causes a protein to alter, and so forms a new phenotype to interact with the environment. In this framework, the forwardly-acting causal steps are the only answer to the question “Why”, the ultimate cause (in this example) being, “because there was a mutation).

Final causation, however, is about the aims or goals to which things tend. So, to use the “Creator” instance, the “Why” of the causal sequance above, in the sense of “final causation”, would be, “because God wanted to make the organism more useful, beautiful or efficient”. Though, in fact, those reasons could be multiplied, to include such things as limiting its population, being useful to man, hastening the return of Christ, or any other mysteries in the mind of God. And that, of course, is why science prefers not to deal in such final causes.

But actually, avoiding teleology (ie final causation) is invariably done in the breech, rather than the observance, as I’ve pointed out before. It’s easy to spot, and become offended by, a statement that something in nature suits God’s purposes. But the whole question of “function”, without which doing biology would be both impossible and useless, is a thoroughly teleological concept. Strictly, classical Darwinian evolution doesn’t have functions, but only survivors.

The phenotypic change in my causal sequence might be, say, a less conspicuous colouration. This leads, perhaps, to less predation, and so the differential survival of that type. But it’s strictly improper to say “the gene functions to provide camouflage”, because it doesn’t, any more than a rock “functions” to stop the dust under it blowing away.

Now, the impropriety of “function” language has, historically, been disguised by the tacit assumption under the paradigm of Neodarwinian adaptationism that natural selection acts universally (as Darwin described in poetic hyperbole) to move everything towards a perfect fit for its environment. If it exists, it’s been adapted to do so by natural selection. And so it was that the first new word I learned in school biology was “adaptation”. You could use it to describe anything and get an approving tick from the teacher.

On the surface, “adaptation” seems an acceptably non-teleological word: rather than things being “well-designed” they just happen to be “well-adapted” by, perhaps, blind processes, to their role in the living organism. Except that “role”, like “function” implies a purpose, such as the imperative to survive and reproduce. In practice, “adaptation” assumes that a thing is suited, by a process you’re presupposing (natural selection) to prioritise “life” over “death”. Otherwise, you’d say something was well-adapted to dying, rather than poorly-adapted.

Now, however, even Sy’s own work is directed towards exploring the increasing realisation that adaptive natural selection is very far from being the sum total of evolution. For example, neutral theory has made much change non-adaptive. Granted, a fine-tuning role is often assumed for natural selction, but far more of what we see around us is currently being assigned to chance: a zebra’s stripes may not be an adaptation at all, but fortuitously non-lethal. And if that is the case, the word “adaptation”becomes as much an assumption of final causation as the mention of God, and far more unwarranted, because God is the necessary universal First Cause, not a hypothesized biological mechanism.

Likewise, one of the hot topics amongst alternatives to Neodarwinism is “niche selection theory”. In this, the “fortuitous” (or, of course, divinely directed) changes in a species make its old way of life untenable. In that case, some inner teleological drive leads it to change its environment, by moving elsewhere, changing its habits or, like the beaver, engineering it into a new form.

In niche construction theory, “adapted to the environment” is the complete opposite of the truth: instead, the organism has adapted the environment to suit what it is. Once more, a teleological assumption, based on the customary currency of Darwinian adaptation by natural selection, has crept into science that ought, ostensibly, to deal only with efficient causes, and making no unwarranted assumptions about whether or not any quasi-teleological adaptation has taken place.

Do you see what this means, in the post-Modern-Synthesis world? It means that you ought no more to be able to use teleological words like “adaptation” unless you’ve made a watertight case in each and every instance that a feature is a genuine adaptation produced by natural election. After all it might, instead, be an environment adapted purposefully by the organism to its own given structure, or a neutral “spandrel” thrown up by some other change, or a characteristic retained because of the limited power of purifying selection to eradicate it, or any one of many other possibilities thrown up in the flux of biological theorising going on at the moment, as the new paradigm struggles to emerge.

That will lead to one of two things. Either science journals should purge not only mentions of God that haven’t been demonstrated unequivocally by the data, but also mentions of functions, adaptations, and any other of the long list of teleological terms, unless in the individual case they have been decisively demonstrated. And that’s not easy, given how long it has taken to disprove textbook examples like the selective advantage of zebra stripes against predators (only this year), or the supposed arms race between cheetahs and Thompson’s gazelle.

But in fact, understanding reality through final causation is so intrinsic to human thinking, and therefore inevitably to human science, that any such attempt to purge biology of it is doomed to failure. Since nothing can any long be assumed to have arisen by natural selction simply because it exists, the alternative (rejecting mere prejudice) is to accept that scientists will make teleological statements of all kinds beyond the evidence, based on their particular theoretical presuppositions.

One biologist may need to declare an adaptationist agenda, another a neutralist one, yet another a niche-construction mindset… and still another, that behind all these unproven and partially competung theories, there is a Creator who works out all things according to his will.

Of these, only the last needn’t bias the science.

NICHE CONSTRUCTION THEORY: "This stupid snout would have starved me into extinction if I hadn't found these little blighters would go in..."

NICHE CONSTRUCTION THEORY: “This stupid snout would have starved me into extinction if I hadn’t found these little blighters would go in…”

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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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17 Responses to Finality creeps in everywhere

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    I dont know if you got a chance to read my reply to your comment on my blog. If you do, you will see that my stance is purely pragmatic and narrowly focused on the realpolitik of modern scientific culture, and its rabid (not too strong a term, I think) anti theism.

    In truth, I entirely agree with everything you wrote here, and I would love to see the day when theology and science merge (or perhaps as Im sure you will agree “re-merge”, since they were once one). But that day is not today. Nor I fear will it come very soon. Sometimes I think it would be a great idea to start a new journal devoted to this. I think the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, come close, which is why I published a few things there. And yet, so intense and pervasive is the common anti theistic meme in our scientific culture (meaning the culture of scientists) that even in a journal with the words “Christian Faith” in the title, I was told by two reviewers of my paper on the new Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, that some of my language sounded a bit too teleological. (Sigh). I am absolutely convinced that to ignore teleology in biology is to doom that science (as it does in cosmology as well) to never reaching much of any truth. In a fairly high level discussion of teleology in evolution that I was blessed to attend last summer, it was pretty well agreed that the idea of teleology should not be prohibited in biology. But that was a view among mostly scientists of Christian faith, and a very small minority of biologists.

    So, what to do? I dont know the answer, and I am thinking of other questions. To summarize what I said in my blog in answer to you is that we must be careful not to bring down a new witch hunt where the target is not only theism, but any whiff of potential teleology, or ideas about evolutionary direction, complexity, or anything that the establishment might deem “creationist”. Yes, this could be seen as a cowardly, survivalist approach, and it is. But we are not strong, and as in biology, the weak need special, sometimes cowardly strategies to survive and fight another day. This does not mean disavowing our Christianity or faith; it does mean choosing where to display it for the best outcome.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Haven’t seen your reply yet Sy (forgot to tick the box to be kept up to date). I’m not surprised that your position is pragmatic – and (I certainly wasn’t getting at you).

      It may well be that teleology has to be acknowledged within biology itself once some of the self-organising principles are better appreciated. If so it will take away the most legitimate reason for forbidding the mention of God, and just leave the less savoury ones looking obvious.

      Of course it’s easier for me being outside the “scientific community” – I just had to respect the equally prejudiced taboos in the medical game.

    • Cath Olic says:

      Cowardice is *never* acceptable and *never* to be recommended.
      Perhaps the word you meant to use was “prudence”, one of the cardinal virtues.

      And perhaps always keep in mind Christ’s sobering words:
      “And I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God;
      but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I have not experienced any anti-theism or pro-theism in my scientific work, so I tend to view the controversies and angst as either peculiar to the biological sciences, or spilling over from ideological wars. On the latter, I am surprised (to put it mildly) at the heat generated amongst Christians interested in evolutionary biology, especially when we include YEC and OEC in the mix.

    On the notion of science dealing with teleology and the final “end” of the Creation, I confess that I find this a difficult concept to deal with as a scientist. Certainly the end of all things is clearly articulated in the Bible, and the purpose of/for the Creation is clearly taught. I suppose what is lacking is the ability for Christian scientists (and perhaps all theists) to state their world view, and give praise to God for the marvels science can demonstrate, in papers by such scientists. The statement “to the Glory of God” was common a few hundred years ago, and was used by virtually all those who came to know of Nature, or created things (buildings, music, art, etc.,) Nowadays, if someone prays to God in a public place, the result is fury and aggression.

    In scientific publications, I feel that Christian scientists should find opportunities to publish papers on the Philosophy of Science, and argue for material causation and finality. I have taken a slightly different approach, in that theological articulations are easier to make in literal/poetic genre – but I am sure that someone with a liking for philosophy can make his/her view known through PoS.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Your point about being able to state world views openly in science probably gets to the nub of the matter. Since worldviews are the basis by which we see the world, it is inevitable that they will emerge in whatever we do, including writing science.

      On his blog Sy points out the unwritten obligation to write papers in the passive voice, which seems to be an attempt to overcome (or at least conceal) this truth. “No actual person did this work, so it’s free from bias” seems to be the idea.

      It would be interesting for some PoS researcher interested in the matter to survey current literature (biological, I suppose, since that’s where the controversy Sy points out arose), and see what worldview assumptions are overtly, or tacitly, included. They will be hidden from the average reader by being shared: you only notice an assumption of atheism, for example, if you’re not an atheist. And of course, the very familiarity of the format means readers are looking for the new science and glossing over anything else – unless an anomalous word like “Creator” leaps out from the page!

      I suspect there would be many such unrecognized references, which takes me back to my point in the OP – the just alternatives would be either to purge all such references – effectively excluding the human being from science, which is absurd in reality and dangerous as a pretence; or to allow them and let the reader be reponsible for recognising them.

      But since that won’t happen any time soon, it’s actually a spotlight on the cultural biases of the scientific establishment, and evidence against its claim to universality of knowledge.

    • Cath Olic says:

      “I suppose what is lacking is the ability for Christian scientists (and perhaps all theists) to state their world view, and give praise to God for the marvels science can demonstrate, in papers by such scientists.”

      Certainly, they certainly lack no such ability.
      Perhaps they lack willingness and fortitude. Or faith.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    “Since worldviews are the basis by which we see the world, it is inevitable that they will emerge in whatever we do, including writing science.”

    I have tried a “mind game” to test this assumption. On the one hand, it is impossible to avoid the obvious, in that my worldview does form the basis of my outlook. Yet how does this impact on my science – obviously, if I value honesty and ethics, I would perform my science in this context; if I did not, I would try fraud if that seemed a means to attain some end. But when I think as a theist, I cannot identify anything that I have done, and conclude that I would report anything differently in my papers, if I adding the comment, “I am a theist” to my papers.

    I can understand why you would be critical of “….a spotlight on the cultural biases of the scientific establishment, and evidence against its claim to universality of knowledge.” However, I still cannot come up with any science that rests, or falls, because someone (or many) scientist has such a cultural bias. It all hinges on how theory and experiment come out in a scientific project.

    I think that it is reasonable to point out the limits of scientific knowledge, and when these limits are transgressed, point out this is ideology. Dawkins is a clear example of this, and I think his colleagues have (to varying degrees) condemned him for that.

    In terms of my experience, I have become convinced the scientific methods requires questioning and skepticism, but a theistic outlook enables me to perhaps appreciate in a particular way, the magnificence of the Creation, as testimony to its Creator. While I do not minimise the importance of this, I cannot see how my publications would be improved if I added such comments in the discussion.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I appreciate your experience, GD – but it would still be interesting for someone to survey a whole tranche of literature and see what emerged.

      But in relation to the original “offending” paper, it wasn’t the worldview’s actual effect on the science that was at issue, but the very mention of God as if he existed. It was the equivalent, I understand, to adding “Soli Deo Gloria” to the manuscript.

    • Cath Olic says:

      “However, I still cannot come up with any science that rests, or falls, because someone (or many) scientist has such a cultural bias. It all hinges on how theory and experiment come out in a scientific project.”

      I would agree that the cultural bias (e.g. atheistic worldview vs. Christian worldview) has *no effect* on the *raw material* of science (i.e. the observations, the experimental results and data). And there is no disagreement about such raw material.

      However, the cultural bias has very much to do with the *interpretation* of the raw material, and also with the *assumptions* underlying it all. And evolutionary or atheistic assumptions and interpretations are seen throughout virtually every article or paper you’ll read in a science journal today (e.g. ‘X evolved the ability to…”; “evolutionary pressures led to Y and …”).

      The belief in evolution has *never* been required in the work leading to any breakthrough in science or technology or medicine. That belief adds zero to the raw material of science, but is added only as a gag-worthy gloss and atheistic worldview lesson. Despite evolution’s scientific uselessness, modern biological science considers it a necessary, unquestionable, and repeat-worthy dogma.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        “However, the cultural bias has very much to do with the *interpretation* of the raw material, and also with the *assumptions* underlying it all.”

        This is a sweeping statement – I cannot think of one paper I have published, nor any paper I have reviewed, that would in any way have an evolutionary interpretation, or seek an atheist or theistic basis for its content.

        In the physical sciences, authors must state any assumptions they rely on, in their discussion of the “raw material”.

        Evolutionary assumptions that are brought into discussions by atheists are in areas of generalisations and speculation – the multi-universe speculation is underscored by a desire from atheists to avoid a beginning and by implication, assume a Creator. The anti-ID (non-teleological) assumptions are also motivated by atheistic assumptions. In all of these areas, science is treated as a means to an ideological end.

        Theists may at times wish to counter such influences, but to do this properly (and avoid making the mistakes of militant atheists) theists should focus on philosophical grounds and implications. The disgraceful state of evolutionary biology is mainly due to the ideological wars.

        • Cath Olic says:

          “This is a sweeping statement – I cannot think of one paper I have published, nor any paper I have reviewed, that would in any way have an evolutionary interpretation, or seek an atheist or theistic basis for its content.”

          You’re probably right.
          I should have confined my “sweep” to biology, specifically “evolutionary biology”, cosmology, and perhaps things like anthropology and paleontology.

          Are any of your papers in these fields?
          I don’t recall your science specialty but I’m betting it’s not in any of these.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            “Are any of your papers in these fields?”


            Yet my work, generally, covers a broader area and includes maths- quantum mechanics, chemistry, applied science, environmental chemistry, materials, and an awful lot of fundamental science that impacts on a large range of natural sciences.

        • Henry Tudor says:

          We have known each other before. Just think of Henry. I am happy to be on such a fine forum.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well, the article’s now been retracted. Suddenly the editors and peer reviewers have noticed their error and recanted. The Inquisition had nothing to do with their spontaneous self-criticism.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Another update: as I suggested, cultural and linguistic issues were to blame before atheist ideology and power imposition made it an issue. The word translated “Creator” was apparently “zaohua zhe”, which in its Chinese Taoist setting has more the sense used over here in the word “Nature”, conceived as as a loosely personified yet impersonal “what makes things happens”: see here.

    A good number of biological papers have, I am sure, appeared uncontroversially with all kinds of powers ascribed, loosely, to “Nature”. Yet my suggestion that the real issue is final causality (when the vocabulary actually makes that plain, as it seemed to in this translated paper by calling a spade a Creator) appears in one of the comments at PlOS One:

    “… Changing Creator to Nature will not solve the problem since it still implies a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. That is there is no design process, no outcome is foreseen. Anything that works better tends to have a selective advantage but that is not a product of design it is a product of selection working on random events. The paper clearly needs a substantive rewrite quite apart from the concerns raised about the significance of the results raised by other comments. …”

    Now, the interesting thing here is that, should such strictures be followed through in practice, one is simply replacing one non-scientific presumption – design – with a rival non-scientific presumption – lack of design. Science, then, inasmuch as its community concurs with stating metaphysical materialism as its basis, has usurped science for the cause of Epicurus and ultimate randomness (chaos), even though its foundation is the Aristotelian (and Christian) cause of ultimate order.

    This, of course, excludes by philosophical diktat any work investigating either internal teleology (such as niche construction, Jablonka’s cultural evolultion, Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering, etc) or even evolution driven by law-driven mechanisms. So ontological randomness is being urged as a foundational principle of biology (rather than a metaphysical conclusion from one particular old theory).

    So much for the illusion of universal, unbiased, investigation! it’s not just Creationists who need to be very worried about how biology is done!

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      This is what BioLogos people refuse to acknowledge, and when it was pointed out to them that random really means that, they go of in endless tangents and rationalisations; materialist are absolutely committed to random in toto – it is a cornerstone of their philosophy – but BioLogos will constantly turn a blind eye and atheists will congratulate them on their goal(!!!???).

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        It does seem strange that though the story was buzzing on Uncommon Descent, and even got into the *Independent* newspaper here, it was not mentioned on BioLogos as of yesterday, whilst the discussion was about the poor science of Genesis talking about the “windows of heaven”.

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