The triumph of teleology

I promised I’d say something about Michael Denton’s The Miracle of Man, the premise of which is the extraordinary fine tuning of the universe itself not only for life, but for the existence of warm blooded, bipedal, oxygen-breathing mankind as the only plausible kind of intelligent and technological biological life-form in the universe.

Immediately those not familiar with Denton will dismiss him as a blinkered defender of the Earth, and mankind, as supernaturally exceptional. In fact, he is even more radical than that, in saying that the chemistry and physics of the cosmos was, from the start, directed towards mankind, based on a wide variety of non-controversial scientific evidence. In this he is developing the approach of Lawrence Henderson’s Fitness of the Environment of 1913, incorporating a mass of new discoveries in physics, chemistry and biology.

Because of his starting point, he is not promulgating human exceptionalism in the traditional way. Rather, he is suggesting that if intelligent, technological life based on the only plausible biological model of carbon chemistry has arisen anywhere in the universe, it is more or less bound to have been on a similar planet, and to have produced a similar result.

He is careful to point out that this has nothing to do with Darwinian adaptation, but with the basics of nature upstream of that – though since his first book was Evolution – a Theory in Crisis his doubts about the relevance of natural selection as a key factor may be assumed. Like those who explore so-called cosmic fine tuning, though, he is almost bound to see his work as throwing a spanner into the materialist, ateleological model of the universe that has prevailed since (in his analysis) Copernicus opened the door to downgrading the Earth as the focus of the cosmos, and man as a privileged microcosm, made after the image of the Logos (or in Denton’s thinking, logic) of the universe.

In other words, he endorses Fred Hoyle’s famous saying that “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” Teleology, then, must be returned to the centre of our view of Creation in order to do justice to the details of chemistry and physics, as well as of cosmology at the highest level, and biology and human culture downstream of these.

I’m hesitant to give too many of Denton’s examples, because the devil is in the details: it’s easy, for example, to say how uniquely suitable for life and even technology oxygen is. But it only really strikes home when one sees just how fortuitous and unusual its chemistry is, oxidising enzymatically at ambient temperatures but otherwise only far above it, in fire, together with the other “lucky” circumstances that make oxygen available and indispensible on earth. These include its ubiquity due to photosynthesis, only possible within the narrow band of EM radiation that makes up the majority of sunlight, and oxygen’s surprisingly docile behaviour in combination with inert Nitrogen, without which wildfires would have long ago consumed everything.

Denton begins with the hydrological cycle we take for granted, but which is dependent on the unique ability of water to co-exist as solid, liquid and gas at Earth’s ambient temperatures, thus constantly replenishing the dry land with the water necessary for terrestrial life. Water’s other unusual abilities as a “universal solvent” and an erosive agent also provide a constant renewal of indispensible trace elements for animals living on land.

And so on – Denton covers oxygen, the fortuitous mix of the atmosphere, the crucial fundamental properties of the biological elements to enable respiration and circulation, and eventually comes to the fitness of both the Earth and mankind within it for manageable fire, and hence the technologies arising from it.

Where I want to take this discussion is the thought that occurred to me throughout reading the book, which Denton expresses on the penultimate page:

A skeptic might assert that things have to be fit for us or we would not be here to notice our good fortune. And of course this is true, but it is entirely trivial, and it misses the point of the core argument… not merely that nature is fit for us (which it must be, of course) but that nature is uniquely fit for intelligent, technologically capable organisms very much like us, that we occupy a very speical, even privileged, place in the order of things.

The weaponised “anthropic principle” he describes is really pretty futile and weak, as well as being based on an unsubstantiated “chance of the gaps.” Man on a fine-tuned Earth is special? Maybe there are many other earth-like worlds in the universe, on which man has either arisen inevitably by “the laws of nature,” or if not we just got lucky. The universe itself is fine-tuned and special? Maybe there is a myriad of other universes like ours, or if not we just got lucky…

Possibilities are not causes, and in this case the special “suitableness” of chemistry and physics for us gives us no grounds for assuming that we would arise spontaneously, even granting the validity of evolutionary theory. As I have remarked in the past, there is no logical reason why the Hardy-Weinberg equation guarantees universal biological evolution, when it is equally compatible with universal extinction.

I’m reminded of reading, recently, yet another rendition of the argument that entropy does not preclude evolution since, locally, energy added to a system can increase complexity and order. This too is trivially true, in that it is the common experience of humanity that with a bit of work, one can reduce disorder. But the keyword there is “work,” a term used in physics distinctly from energy, which assumes energy being applied directly and therefore teleologically to a system, and not at random. Work is the channeling of energy to an end result, be that in mechanics, electronics or anything else.

Having a universe whose physics has been “monkeyed with” is a prerequisite for our existence, but not a cause. You can put a child in a fully-equipped engineering workshop, and he will not produce a car. It’s true that energy from the sun can produce a limited increase in order, such as snowflakes, but then we’re back to the surprising order already inherent in the nature of water, which is what does the “work.” It remains far from clear that life is more like a crystal than a piece of engineering, and the fact that entropy can be locally reversed does nothing to settle the question.

No, Denton has hit on a whole series of phenomena which, taken together, make the materialist account of the universe seem contrived and frankly inadequate to explain anything much. I am interested to see what appears to be a development in his own thought (though I may have misunderstood him in the past). True to his focus on the fine-tuning of the universe, Denton’s biological approach seems in the past to have been that of a structuralist, rather than a believer in God as Creator. In other words, his doubts about the ability of Neodarwinian mechanisms to carry the weight of biological change are based on the idea that there are laws of biological form built into the fabric of the universe, just as he shows such teleological laws are built into the laws of physics and chemistry, as explored in this book.

But in a few places in this book he points out how his views are in accord with the Judaeo-Christian conception of the world. Indeed, as food for thought, let me leave you with his final paragraph:

This is the miracle of man. We are not positioned in the spatial center of the universe as was believed before Copernicus, but what we have found over the past two centuries confirms the deep intuition of the medieval Christian scholars who believed that “in the cognition of nature in all her depth, man finds himself.”

And of course, within such a radically purposeful framework man cannot find himself without also finding that God was there before him.

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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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2 Responses to The triumph of teleology

  1. Levi says:

    As a scholar of Schopenhauer before coming to Christianity, I fell upon a similar idea to Denton’s, but as a criticism of what I considered the major flaw in Schopenhauer’s pre-Darwinian, but very darwinian, metaphysically-grounded system. Schopenhauer gives an account of the world as having a double aspect, the first drawing upon Plato, the world as Vorstellung (Idea, or Representation), which is a world of objects causally interacting in time and space for a Subject, the sine qua non of all knowing; the second aspect, from which he draws heavily from Kant and Buddhism, he claims is ultimately also behind and motivating the first aspect, ie., is the unified and unmanifest Thing-In-Itself, which Schopenhauer believes is knowable by the Subject (because a subject is embodied in an object) as “Willen”, the will-to-life, desire, or striving.

    In his neat system, in which “Being” is excluded as “mere speculative theology”, the Will spontaneously and mysteriously manifests as two opposing forces, and from this starting point, the evolution of forms takes place blindly, the forms following the appearances, individuating within the manifold in time and space, the knowable aspect of the world as Idea, according to fundamental laws, the “principium indivduationis” and most importantly, the principle of sufficient reason. However, as with the principle of sufficient reason, which explains phenomena by reference to fact of their own existence, so the laws at the origin of the world (prior to magnetism, gravity, attraction, etc.) must remain “principia occulti”.

    What is absolutely essential to understanding his system, however, is the interaction or the activity of the knowing subject in the things known, and this brings to mind the internal voice Julian Jaynes heard before commencing his strange masterwork on the bicameral mind: “Include the knower in the known.”

    Schopenhauerism in many ways may lead to Christianity; one way is, if one looks over this blind Will as being knowable qua Will, i.e. as an Idea, one is immediately confronted with this question-begging, that cranky old Arthur himself recognised, i.e, that “all we can say is that, insofar as we can say that the world is Will, we can only say that is Will *for us*” ie., that its true essence, nature or telos cannot possibly be known to us through the intellect, because for Schopenhauer, the Intellect is just that aspect of the World that is manifesting, as subject/object relations in time and space, which knows things not in themselves, but within the confines of the categories of the mind: Time, Space and Causality. In other words, from our vantage point, a posteriori, we can only guess at approximations of the a priori telos or nature of the world, and there is no rational ground therefore against a little epistemic humility vis-~a- vis what the world is willing toward. We do not have immediate access to the nature and telos of the Thing-In-Itself except mediately, through the Intellect. This abyss between the universal subject and the universal will he associates with the Buddhist “veil of Maya”, which in Schopenhaurism, because the Being of the world is ousted, can only overcome only by will-less contemplation of the pure forms, or the daily ascetic destruction of the willing self, in other words.

    This is precisely the philosophy or biology that you would expect to find, once a priori metaphysical concepts such as Being are ousted (i.e., God, and Aristotelean metaphysics is ousted), or are subordinated to the accidents of time and space that bring about their *appearance*, leaving only a subject of experience to judge with his bare senses. Christianity’s doctrine of original sin shows that such judgments cannot be well-founded; it also shows, given that man’s “rational soul” is that infused quality that has access to immaterial and objective ideas according to an universal logic, that the existence of the Will, and a Subject of experience, cannot be, without Being itself. Therefore, the sleight of hand performed by Schopenhauer and later Darwin, is the same – to oust Being as “mere speculative theology” – to merely describe the world from a pagan’s vantage point and thereby to superimpose the self-evident bellicose striving of all of its appearances back upon the metaphysical ground of its existence; in other words, to substitute that strife, as “nature”, for the world’s (and the will’s) creator and God. From such a lowly peak, one will always conclude, with Heraclitus, that “Strife (the Will manifesting in conflict with itself, in other words) is lord and father of us all,” and then, like Schopenhauer (or Buddha), be forced renounce the world, or like Nietzsche, affirm it. These are the two poles, universalist-idealist and egoist-materialist, of the pagan mind and vantage point, and to paraphrase Chesterton, both lead to, and remain, at the crossroads.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Thanks for your informative and erudite observations.

    Do I detect a modern parallel to Schopenhauer in the spontaneous variations of the quantum vacuum supposed to bring the universe into existence? Both ideas seem no more solidly grounded than the bright idea I got as a teenager that the universe might consist of positive and negative holes in space.

    It’s kind of amusing that in such intricate philosophical systems about the world, “its true essence, nature or telos cannot possibly be known to us through the intellect,” yet the deep truths behind its true essence (in this case the inner conflict of the primeval will) apparently can be apprehended intellectually, at least by the philosopher.

    But certainly not by the common man, who nevertheless can glimpse the nature of God by personal encounter, and comprehend the promise of, one day, knowing as he is known.

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