Friday, November 13, 2009


Telling stories to account for the world and everything that happens in it, whether to ourselves or to others, is something that we as humans do instinctively. Our stories, however, have to have beginnings, middles and ends, origins, developments and dénouements, causes, phenomena and purposes. It seems that we find it difficult to account for anything in the world without giving overarching reasons for events as well as historical causes. But even more significantly: we would not get up in the morning if we could not see a purpose in doing so, since there would be no reason to prefer one impulse to another. We would be like Burridan’s ass, paralysed by indecision. Our moral existence is rendered impossible if we cannot attribute purposes to processes.

When the first attempts at a purely rational account of the world were made by the Ancient Greeks, the thought that natural processes were governed by inherent purposes seemed to these early investigators self-evident. Purposes were considered to be quite legitimate as reasons for events. Natural purposes were another of those things that just appear ‘obvious’ to humans. The Pre-Socratic philosophers, who were much more interested in what we would regard as natural science than in any abstruse questions of epistemology or ethics, worked out systems of sweeping universality, tracing every phenomenon in the world to some basic arche or fundamental reason for the world, water, air, the formless, fire, mathematical relations, and so on according to which the natural world ‘grew’ (phusein ‘to grow’ – the origin of the words ‘physics’, ‘physical’ etc.). With this approach, they founded in a sense the method of reduction that was to become exclusively valid in our culture. But the systems they built up on these basic concepts were imbued with teleological notions: things happened for reasons that were not simply a column of antecedent historical ‘causes’ on which the present was supposedly balanced like a ping-pong ball on a spout of water; and the world was thus a comprehensible whole working according to principles of co-ordinated functioning that the human mind could appreciate as intelligent. As old Thales put it: “everything is full of gods”.

It was Aristotle who put the notion of the natural purposes of the world on a firm conceptual footing. He postulated that every separate thing in the world has an inbuilt natural purpose, even if it be only the humble stone whose purpose is always to seek, despite the hindrance of other objects, its ‘proper place’ at the centre of the earth. Aristotle was principally a biologist and interested mainly in living systems. It is not surprising, therefore, that he viewed everything in organic or quasi-organic terms. When he considered the living world, he theorised that each living unit was animated by a ‘form’, a kind of organising principle that guaranteed that the matter composing the creature would be organised during its individual history into the various stages of the organism. This form was a kind of essence, a kind of template, a kind of natural definition of what it meant to be the creature in question; and thus the creature’s existence was, as it were, mapped out from birth to grave in definite formal terms. But Aristotle also knew that matter became organised in the world not just from internal forces but also owing to external forces, heat, cold, water, earth and so on. He knew similarly that different types of material systems organised themselves in different ways. But he postulated that whatever the forces acting upon a natural system, it remained always under the guidance of another principle that as it were functioned as a sort of future goal. Every natural system tended inevitably to the realisation of what, thanks to its inner form, it was destined to become.

This goal or telos was not only the organisation, let’s say of the fully formed adult organism, but also the achievement of the range of typical roles that such an organism was designed to play within the whole system of the natural world. Thus Aristotle came upon his theory of the four types of ‘cause’. He called them individually the ‘formal cause’, the ‘efficient cause’, the ‘material cause’ and the ‘final cause’. In many senses, the first three of these could be grouped together and fused into the one single type of cause that modern science uses. But the last of these was used by Aristotle to construct a complete, coherent and co-ordinated system of nature based upon rationally comprehensible reasons for which everything happened. Every creature in nature, including man, fitted into an intricate and completely orchestrated nexus of interdependences in which each individual existent contributed intelligibly to the functioning of the whole. This conception of nature was to rule European thought for nigh on two thousand years after Aristotle had invented it and it has only been in the last three hundred years that the notion of natural purposes, what is called ‘teleology’ has been condemned as an illegitimate concept in any approach to the world based upon scientific method. The scientific method accounts for all process historically and only allows consideration of the future to exist as an extrapolation of past regularity into the future – what is called ‘induction’.

Aristotle’s four causes were reduced by the modern scientific attitude to just one. The material and the efficient causes were fused, the formal cause disappeared (except, perhaps as the notion of a genetic code which is anyway just another thing with a causal history) and the final cause was simply thrown out of the window as incomprehensible because it required an intelligence in nature that took into account the future of things as well as their past. Modern science set itself the task of constructing a complete and exhaustive world system on the historical cause alone. Only antecedent causes (what Aristotle called ‘efficient causes’) could be regarded as explanatory. Final causes suggested that the changes in nature were either due to some mysterious attraction from the future, or to a planning, quasi-human intelligence and neither of these would do.

Since the science of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set about exploring purely mechanical principles, only the prior, historical cause mattered because only the historical cause could be understood solely in terms of the properties and motions of physical objects. The result of this was that not only did the notion of ‘purpose’ disappear from scientific language; the very idea of a purpose to any natural system was banished with loud cries of ‘mysticism!’ or ‘mystification!’, or worse. The sciences in which this loathing of the concept of purpose was most evident were the biological sciences. This was perhaps understandable, given the Aristotelian heritage. But the enthusiastic embrace of ever more arbitrarily mechanistic, ever less meaningful principles in the explanation of the origins and functioning of living systems culminated in the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest by natural selection, a theory in which any notion of inherent purposefulness to the natural world was pronounced to be erroneous. This was no bad thing, since it reined in the speculative impulse and prevented the religious from pontificating on the direction of natural processes.

After Darwin, the biological sciences developed his insights in increasingly mechanistic ways and the blind struggle for survival, the meaningless competitive development of adaptive advantage, the senseless and directionless battle of all against each became the means by which the natural world and its exquisitely tuned systems were accounted for. Of course, the very notions of ‘struggle’, ‘survival’ ‘adaptation’, ‘competition’ are teleological because they are inseparable from purposes; and the biological sciences have to use all sorts of contortions of language to avoid slipping inadvertently into the language of teleology. Natural systems evolve ‘in order’ to adapt, they adapt ‘in order’ to compete, they struggle ‘in order’ to compete and they compete ‘in order’ to survive after all. The ‘purpose’ of evolution is adaptation and survival. This sort of language, though it is everywhere in evolutionary theory, is huffily pronounced to be no more than a convenient shorthand way of talking, for in fact, everything happens strictly at random and for no other reason than those that are built into the ‘necessities’ of matter.

The principal reason for this reflex-rejection of any hint of purpose in the processes of nature had not so much to do with the philosophical teleology of the Greeks and of European philosophy influenced by them. It had more to do with the fact that the Christian Church in its various forms and deisms and theisms in all their forms had enthusiastically espoused this philosophical teleology and were busily finding all manner of subtle and not so subtle purposes in the course of nature. Most of these purposes, however, were blatantly human purposes and the originators of these teleological theories seemed intent on demonstrating that God had organised the entire course of nature for the convenience of man. This notion was after all at the heart of the founding myths of Judaism and of Christianity, which grew out of it.

Despite the rigorous arguments of David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century concerning the impossibility of arguing rationally for any detectable purpose in the course of nature, many people in the nineteenth century – usually religious people with propagandistic intentions, and most notably William Paley – argued that the exquisite order in the natural world that was in the process of being uncovered by an increasingly exact science could only have one explanation: intelligent purposiveness or, to use a more contemporary phrase, ‘intelligent design’. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and the later theory of random mutations of the genome, however, put paid to the breezy optimism of these theories. But something of them remained. Something like a worry remained in the minds of the biologists for the temptation of purposive accounts of natural phenomena was ever present. In the popular mind, natural purposes seemed self-evident, as they had to the earliest philosophers. It was for these reasons that the biologists became almost inquisitorial in the rooting out of teleological ‘heresy’ and in the denial of the role of purpose in nature. There is no more touchy and sensitive area in modern science than the issue of purpose in evolution. The witch-finder general still stalks the land in defence of Darwinian orthodoxy. It was for this reason that the biological sciences became the most mechanistic and dogmatic of sciences and post-Darwin, the most fertile fund of anti-religious and atheistic arguments for the essential futility, cruelty and senselessness of all life.

This banishment of any hint of purposiveness in nature was an important factor in the development of philosophical theories concerning the total absence of any sort of sense, meaning, structure or direction to human life that have largely characterised modern philosophy. Religion had provided complete structural accounts of the world within which the individual human life could be seen to have an overall shape, a beginning, a middle and an end and perhaps a destiny beyond that. Everything was under divine guidance and distinctly going somewhere. The post-Darwinian world, by contrast saw human life as just one episode in a meaningless story of struggle for survival, a story that was going nowhere and meant nothing, that was mere senseless gibberish.

Many philosophers, most notably Nietzsche, rubbed their hands at the discomfiture of the religious believers, whose cosy world-system was exposed as an unsustainable fantasy, a mere fiction. With the ‘death of God’, purpose disappeared entirely and even the short-term purposes that human beings give themselves to structure their lives, though explicable in terms of power-relations, were seen as completely meaningless. From this basic perception arose the atheistic version of Existentialist philosophy and the theory that, far from having any essential structure and sense, human life is intrinsically nonsensical and without value. The doctrine of ‘absurdity’ had arrived and, with the support of trendy French intellectuals, enjoyed a very great vogue. The heirs to this nexus of philosophical persuasions are the splenetic little atheists that appear regularly on our television screens and bill themselves as scourges of all who believe in religious fairy-tales.

In the modern world, questions of meaning have dominated many areas of philosophy, but meaning has quite rightly been uncovered as a property of sentences, and groups of sentences, not of lives or worlds. Teleology has been expunged from the vocabulary of science. It still exists in ethics, but only as a theory that claims that ‘the end – or purpose – justifies the means’. Modern man lives in a world from which all overriding meaning and purpose has drained; and that is a most uncomfortable state of affairs, because the partial meanings that can be created (job, family, football team, club, collection etc) somehow lose their shine if they are ultimately situated in an ocean of meaninglessness. We, as creatures, crave a sense of direction and structure that transcends our individual life; and we will not give that up just because someone tells us that it’s just a matter of the little purpose-craving circuit in our brains that’s working overtime.

Teleology is proscribed by science because it is considered to arise in a subjective prejudice: humans crave purposes in everything in order to be able to act coherently; and thus they project these purposes onto the universe and structure universal events according to them. Clearly, however, if knowledge is to be objective, then mere human psychology can not be allowed to interfere with this. What is often overlooked in this striving is the fact that our canons of rationality arise no less from the structure of our minds and depend no less on a particular set of gizmos in the brain. We are built to require rationality; our brains force us to demand it just as they demand purpose. But we are also built to require meaning and to abandon this is no more possible than to abandon rationality.

The whole enterprise of science is based on the purpose of achieving understanding and on the ultimate purpose of achieving ultimate understanding. Nevertheless, the official ideological view of the scientific community – not necessarily of individual scientists – is the theory that since the universe can be adequately described as mere matter in motion, questions of value and purpose are strictly irrelevant. This theory and the not very logical corollary that everything in the universe thus has no meaning have contributed more than any other cultural development to a sense of unease in the modern world that finds its voice in many works of literature. The myopic, local meanings – a pretty garden, impressive culinary skills, shoes that don’t pinch and so on – simply do not satisfy. We seem to need something grander, something more universal. And it is precisely this, according to contemporary science and philosophy, that we can not have.

Well perhaps it is time to question this thesis.

If one thinks for a moment about it, the natural purposes of the world, if they exist, do not at all have to be human purposes. If one thinks further about it, the world is full of purposes that are not human. It would, indeed, be extraordinary and incredible if all purposes were human, since humans certainly did not think up, design or construct the world; rather the reverse was the case. The main arguments for the rational impossibility of arguing for the existence of purpose in nature have generally concerned the impossibility of detecting human purposes in the overall course of events. But only a mind convinced of the existence of an anthropomorphic God, a sort of universal Father Christmas, would even want to begin to detect such purposes. A little thought, as usual, is all that is needed to convince us not only of the intrinsic absurdity of such a world – how could there be a human purpose in the existence of so many things that clearly thwart and frustrate human purposes? – but also of its profoundly disagreeable nature: a universe based upon human purposes would be intolerably claustrophobic and even more absurd than a purely chaotic one.

On the other hand, the non-existence of human purposes in nature could easily go together with the presence of ‘purposes’ of a non-human character. The single inverted commas indicate that we could be talking about something here for which we have no word. Of course, these ‘purposes’ might be undetectable and they might even militate in certain respects against merely human well-being; but there is no logical reason why the absence of human purposes makes every conceivable, or inconceivable type of ‘purpose’ impossible. It quite simply does not. Moreover, the presence of non-human purposes in the cosmos would not necessarily vitiate human purposes, it could merely subsume them, just as human purposes subsume those of the creatures we use for our convenience.

There may well be structure and coherence in the course of nature that we cannot detect with the aid of our mechanising schemata alone. There may also be purposive structure and coherence in nature that we can at least partially, if only partially understand as being intelligent in human terms. We could conceivably understand these without being committed to postulating understanding of any overall purposes. This would be a kind of ‘purposiveness without purpose’ (Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck) in Kant’s term, which is, according to him, the basis of our judgement of the aesthetic purpose of the art object, similar to the principle of Gesetzmäßigkeit ohne Gesetz or ‘lawfulness without law’ that governs our tendency to make teleological judgements about the course of nature. There is no reason why we should not assess the ‘purposiveness’ which we imagine we detect in the universe in ways that are analogous to our assessment of beauty in art. After all, we need some principle to moderate the suffocating and outmoded mechanism of the current intellectual paradigm and this mechanism, itself, arises in human predispositions that are no more authoritative than the predisposition to seek purpose.

It is the case that nature is full of purposes from those of the marauding amoeba to those of the pack of hunting chimpanzees. We can by projection understand the purposes of most biological systems, but there is no reason to suppose that purpose does not structure other agglomerations of matter that we observe in the history of the universe. Because these purposes are not human, there is no logical reason why we should not imagine all the systems of the natural world as governed by purpose and therefore by value. The scientific rejection of both purpose and value in nature is something that derives more from prejudice (‘humanism’ where this word designates a prejudice in the series ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘ageism’ and the rest) than from strict reasoning.

What do biologists say about the human craving for purpose and meaning to life and the universe? Man, they tell us, is a creature that has evolved so spectacularly and in such a short time because of his ability to set himself achievable goals, immediate purposes. Man’s entire consciousness is structured by a sense of purpose. He accounts for everything in terms of purposes. It seems to be an intrinsic feature of his right-brain habit of telling coherent stories about his experience. All the stories he tells himself about the world and events in it have a structure, they go somewhere. Man is almost incapable of viewing any set of events without striving to detect his own purposes in them. The search for purpose seems to be a way of life that governs everything man represents to himself, from the immediate intention to feed himself to the entire course of the universe. It is the fact that human consciousness is so suffused with the sense of purpose that philosophers and scientists first imagined that purpose in nature was simply obvious. Now that we think we know that there is no purpose at all in nature, we have to get used to seeing this particular kink in our minds for what it is and become accustomed to putting it to one side as a delusion. We have to develop the habit of understanding that our craving for purpose is simply a projection onto the world of something that structures our minds. Once we have understood this prejudice of ours, we can catch ourselves at it and each time we do so make an effort to stop it – just like a nasty habit. We can reassure ourselves, every time we find ourselves thinking in terms of universal purpose, that this is just a particular tendency of the mind that evolution has built into us, it has no sense and no application to the world and we can rid ourselves of it.

Well, this is all well and good, but if we are built to expect purposes in nature, certain consequences follow. Firstly, that does not mean that there are necessarily none: logically, it is just as intelligent to say that we expect purposes because they are there and we are equipped to detect them. Secondly, and more importantly, the same argument from projection can be applied to many other aspects of our constitution. If we are cognitively and psychologically predisposed to spot purposes where there are none, might it not also be the case that we are cognitively and psychologically predisposed to find patterns, mechanisms, separate things and rational explanations for things where there are none?

Rationality is just as much a property of our minds – rather than of the world – as our tendency to espy purposes. So the rational explanation of our history and origins in terms of the evolutionary theory may be no more than the projection onto the cosmos of a particular (maybe right-brain) prejudice to which we are inclined. You cannot have it both ways: either our cognitive apparatus makes contact with reality by means of the principles upon which it operates, or it does not make contact. You can’t selectively excise bits of the mind and say, “these are inappropriate to a view of the world” and leave other bits, no less part of our constitution and say of them, “these are absolutely authoritative.” Our search for reasons, rational explanations, is clearly no more authoritative than our search for purposes and meanings, since both are apparently programmed into us by evolution. The world has no purpose, O.K., but by the same token, it has no rationally comprehensible structure either. There is no use appealing to technology to ‘prove’ that our rational explanations truly belong to the world, because our ethics, our codes of law, our societies, our entire history, ‘prove’ the appropriateness of our attribution of purpose. Both evolve together and there is no point in singling the one out as authoritative while dismissing the other as illusory. Our minds come up with mechanisms and purposes in equal measure.

It would seem legitimate to suppose that either the whole of our mind makes contact with reality, and as a whole, or no part of it does, for no part is obviously more authoritative than any other. There is no reason to select the logical principles applicable to our conception of three-dimensional objects as uniquely authoritative and to reject the need for purpose: the one is not more ‘obvious’ than the other. It’s just that we have opted to favour the one and refuse the other. Evolution has equipped us with the ability to reason concerning a world of three-dimensional objects; but that approach clearly has real limits, as Kant showed in his Critique of Pure Reason. It has also equipped us with the ability to structure that world by means of purposes; while being conscious of the limits of this approach, there is no reason why we should not use it heuristically. We can use both of these structuring devices critically, but there is no absolutely convincing reason for favouring the one over the other. What is programmed into us by evolution, or by creation as a whole, by hyperworld, is either authoritative in all its parts or not in any. Either the sensory-cognitive apparatus that makes us think in terms of reasons, causes and purposes is authoritative in all its parts or we may as well believe that it is so in none.

So if you want to think in terms of a world governed by an overall meaning that you may not be able to detect, but that you may wish to trust as coherent, nevertheless, then you may. Science and the modern theory of evolution cannot gainsay you, though the outmoded defenders of the thing-ideology might try. Our very sense of self is connected with our need for meaning and purpose. But this truth is also relevant here and often overlooked: our very notion of rationality is also linked with purpose, since our search for knowledge is closely allied to our human existence. The idea that we can search for knowledge without purpose is simply, absurdly wrong.

The individual sense of purpose and the search for universal purpose – two very different things in fact – seem essential to our functioning as persons. Science cannot forbid us to search for a means to integrate our human purposes into universal purposes on the basis of an argument concerning projection, for to take away projection is to take away any chance of comprehending the world. We project all of our inventions on the world: logic, maths, language, model-making. The astonishing thing is that they seem to fit in so many respects and illuminate the world. Even our emotions at times seem to have cognitive force: think for one moment of the loathing of ugliness that preceded the rational realisation that dirty industry damaged our world. There is no absolutely reliable approach to the world the authoritativeness of which is somehow guaranteed absolutely and independently of us (objectively). The belief in such an approach is a prejudice of a similar order to that which made us believe in absolute three-dimensional space and absolute one-dimensional, linear time. We have to use what we have at our disposal and what we have is a total response to the world, a friction of hindworld against foreworld and hyperworld that gives rise to new structures in midworld. We cannot prejudge which bits of our total response, which bits of our intellectual and emotional constitution are applicable to the world and which are not. We have to play them all off against each other and see if the result is illuminating, if, in our view, it makes contact with reality.

To deny purposes is no more intelligent that to deny rational explanations and it’s time we rehabilitated them in some form. We are not likely to fall into the trap of elevating our immediate human purposes to cosmic significance, but we can think with perfect legitimacy in terms of the intelligent co-ordination of the cosmos in the context of which our existence has sense. A sense of trust in the dispositions of that intelligence would not seem to be in any way irrational. We may think in terms of a mainstream of events in the history of the cosmos, where some hint of accumulation of purpose seems to be detectable – e.g. from the level of the fine-tuned fundamental constants that permit the variety of our world, to the emergence of intelligent carbon-based life on our planet that depends upon them – if not demonstrable in purely mechanistic terms. To trust such a fundamental purpose would not damage in any way the methods or the procedures of science; but it would constitute a source of moral insight that the human race could find extremely valuable.

The moral constitution of man is narrowly bound up with the purpose and value of events. Of course, these purposes and values can be set merely as useful fictions in terms of group conventions and group dynamics. But we want something more; and that ‘wanting something more’ is a total response of the total mind. The total response of the total human being includes every kind of response from the most rational to the most emotional. Listening to all of it at once requires great sophistication. To be able to listen to it and respond to it with intimations (to put it no higher than that) of universal sense and meaning would be salutary indeed for most of the human race, despite the strident opposition of the inflated reifying ego with its pretensions to divinity and its desire to be in mechanical control.

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