The Thing That Science Can’t Get Over

I read the most interesting excerpt this weekend. In the Esquire Culture Blog entitled “Deep Thought For Sunday”  the author talks about the uproar in the scientific community around last years publication of Thomas Nagel’s book  Mind and CosmosPoppy

It may help to know that the subtitle of Nagel’s book is “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”.

The post – quoting from a Aeon article – says:

In ancient science (or, as it used to be called, natural philosophy), teleology held that things — in particular, living things — had a natural end, or telos, at which they aimed. The acorn, Aristotle said, sprouted and grew into a seedling because its purpose was to become a mighty oak. Sometimes, teleology seemed to imply an intention to pursue such an end, if not in the organism then in the mind of a creator. It could also be taken to imply an uncomfortable idea of reverse causation, with the telos — or ‘final cause’ — acting backwards in time to affect earlier events. For such reasons, teleology was ceremonially disowned at the birth of modern experimental science.

This, of course, was not received well in the scientific community.

The ideas in the book were  berated as ‘outdated’.  Steven Pinker complained about  ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’.
The Guardian newspaper trumpeted it as ‘the most despised science book of 2012’.

The Aeon article introduced it this way :

Science can’t stop talking in terms of ‘purposes’, but if the universe cares about us, it has a funny way of showing it

I know that there are many in the Homebrewed network are are far more up on science than I am.  So – even though I am very interested in the subject – I thought it would be a good idea to ask the Diaconate.

What do you make of the controversy surrounding purpose or teleology in contemporary science?
It there a way that we, as a theological community, can contribute to the conversation?
Is it inherently problematic to attempt to do so?
Is there a silver lining to this ongoing controversy for those of us who want to hold onto faith? 

Looking forward to your insights and responses!

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18 comments
MattBarlow
MattBarlow

Why is it always science's fault? Why does science have to get over "it"? Perhaps, theology has to get over it. What if theology were to accept that there really is NO final cause? No purpose??

 

Our universe is expanding. Over a long period of time, as the universe expands, so will the very fabric of space & time itself. Trillions & trillions of years from now, as the last stars die out, and as the very laws of nature break down due to the expansion of spacetime, our universe will literally cease to exist. It wasn't created ex nihilo - rather nothing is headed straight for us! Nothing is where we all are headed.So, I wonder: where is the final cause in that? Certainly we give purpose and meaning to our lives, but a divine purpose intertwined through all of reality, set in motion from "the beginning"? Science has moved on from that argument for a reason, and I wonder when theology will do the same.

charis9
charis9

We live our lives on a large two-dimensional chess board, while the Creator, however one may wish to define that  observes us on our limited board from a multi-dimensional plane and smiles.... Charis

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

I'm really interested in this too Bo. I've read lots of sumations of Negal's book but haven't actually read it yet.

 

I think this controversy is pretty hilarious actually, and John Cobb does a great job analyzing it. When science did away with final cause they chose only to accept efficient cause, effectively reducing the universe to "matter in motion." Funny thing is that emphasis on either cause leaves the door open to a divine interpretation, but we see which diety the Cartisan efficient cause got us, i.e. the transcendent mover of matter. Can't blame science for not wanting to entertain that thought.

 

Silver lining? Cobb's good at seeing that too: All entities which exist in the world have "interiority." That is, we are not just objects in the world, but we are also subjects. We'll all catch up eventually.

KirstenG
KirstenG

I'm not a scientist either, though I've been dabbling in order to better teach my philosophy classes. Not to be Wittgensteinian, but the problem seems to be one of using the wrong language game. Science can explain *that* things happen and *how* things happen, but when it attempts to explain *why* things happen, it resorts to the language of purpose. (The Aeon article highlights this point well.) The materialist neo-Darwinian view (with due respect paid to Hume) would suggest that we fabricate the need for a *why* when we should be satisfied with the *that* and the *how*. 

 

As a process thinker, I've always thought the issue was the residue from colloquial dualism--that we can't seem to get away from thinking in either/or terms instead of both/and. If we accept the problem of interactionism as a legitimate criticism of Cartesian dualism, then we seem to be left with the materialists on the one side, who believe that everything can be understood in terms of a causally closed system of physical principles, and on the other, a sort of quasi-Platonic or Berkelean idealism that rejects matter as 'truly' real. From my limited (and I do mean limited) understanding of quantum mechanics, I think a process view works to reject all three of these perspectives (Cartesian dualism, materialism, and idealism).

 

I heard a great podcast from the NPR show Radiolab that I use in my classes to talk about metaphysical idealism, and though the podcast does relate the content of the show to 'idealism,' I think it's actually more closely akin to a both/and view of the world: we are, and we live in, a world of physical principles that give us and our surroundings 'stuffiness,' however flickering and fleeting it actually is. In the podcast, a mathematician is interviewed regarding his view of the world as comprised of math (in a kind of Pythagorean turn).

 

At root, we're atoms, but atoms are essentially empty space. The closest electrons to the nucleus are about as close as the outer wall of Madison Square Garden is to the center floor if it were to scale. So why can't we pass our hands through the wall? The answer he gives essentially boils down to "Because math." The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that we can never really know the position or momentum of an electron in its orbital because as soon as we try to measure it, its position changes (this is because in order to measure it we have to shine a shorter wavelength of light than the electron's wavelength through it, but in so doing, the electron absorbs the energy and its position moves). Along with that, he cites the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which states that no 2 fermions (a genre of particle of which an electron is one kind) can occupy the same quantum state at the same time (quantum state refers to the different numbers defining an electron's position, momentum, rotation, and energy level). So basically, to speak of "particles" as "things" is exactly the wrong approach; he argues that everything is basically math distributed through space-time. Yet he retains this wonder about the universe, and references the mystery of consciousness, emotion, etc.

 

Here's the link to the podcast: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2012/dec/31/solid-rock/ -- it's worth a listen (about 12 minutes long).

 

All of that to say that... well, for one, that as an open theologian/philosopher, the idea of causal closure doesn't work. Better analytic philosophers than I have presented all the arguments why this should be accepted. The generally accepted school of quantum mechanics (the Copenhagen interpretation) rests on probabilities--and maintains that even if a unified field theory emerges, it will still not produce a deterministic view of the world. What I find interesting in those who claim materialism is that there often seems to be no problem with a deterministic worldview, only in attributing the language of purpose to it. On the flip side, you can have a Calvinist (distinct from Calvin's own views) view of the universe that seems to be just as deterministic thanks to double predestination. Neither is particularly persuasive to me. There is still a fundamental indeterminacy at root here under all the calculus. As a person of faith, this leaves open the space to speak of a Divine that lures the created toward a telos without coercion. We're headed in a direction given the universe in which we exist; but the future is not wholly determined.

 

But like I said, I'm not a scientist. In fact, now that I've blathered on for a few paragraphs, I'm not even sure I addressed your questions, @theBoSanders .

ChrisWick
ChrisWick

As a physicist by training and an engineer by trade I feel compelled to chime in quickly without applying too much philosophical musing (yet). There is most certainly a theoretical purpose for every action in the universe - the increase of entropy. Entropy is our representation of disorder in the universe(a) and we (scientists) believe that every action serves to increase this disorder. Put another way, every regulated structure in the universe is destined to fall into disorder and lose all order and potential for further action. One of the main discontinuities in our universe seems to be that there is no possibility of symmetry in time precisely because of this theoretical law governing disorder (time can't flow in the other direction without some sort of discontinuity because the laws of physics preclude an increase in order). When we introduce the conscious mind (i.e. something that recognizes this increase in entropy) we are introducing an agent that can act to oppose local increases in entropy. This is where it becomes philosophical (theological) but it may be that we can consider our purpose in relation to the physical universe as maximizing the "good" in the world that can be accomplished with our finite amount of order.

MattCBarlow
MattCBarlow

@theBoSanders Excellent! I look forward to sharing some thoughts...

bultmanniac
bultmanniac

Not a scientist, but from a Marxist/Cultural materialist perspective, the telos is at first ideological.  But when you come down to it, it's the perpetuation of material production.  This certainly applies to science, since if science doesn't aid and make more efficient material production, it cannot perpetuate itself.  But it's an interesting question... I would love to hear a more scientific perspective.

bultmanniac
bultmanniac

 @MattBarlow "Why is it always science's fault? Why does science have to get over "it"? Perhaps, theology has to get over it."  Amen.  My heart feels strangely warm.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

I was hoping you'd chime in on this  @MattBarlow 

 

The problem people like Nagel have with scientism is that it leaves out the purposive element in the world. And, to be clear "purposive element" does not equal Calvinistic predestination. Cobb would say is means the tendency for things to emerge to greater levels of complexity, creative novelty and goodness. Besides, as you point out, the study of both science and theology are purposefull activities in and of themselves.

 

As far as what happens what happens when our system reaches equalibruim--or nothingness-- when the arrow of time ceases and change stops, who knows. But I'm sure it will be a hell of a fun ride!

Jonnie Russell
Jonnie Russell

 @ChrisWick Thanks for bringing the physicist insights into the discussion here Chris.  I'm wondering though, apart from some sort of process view (like that mentioned by some above), is it scientifically correct to say that every actions "serves a purpose" to increase entropy? This here, is the introduction of the kind of purposeful, goal-oriented kind of language that scientists are either fighting against (seeking to maintain the crude efficient causal 'billiard ball' universe), or lapsing into using and pissing off those who want those words left out.  Is it not more correct to say that increased entropy is the causal result of the nature of the expanding and cooling off universe, rather than any purposeful end goal?

 

I think this dogmatic rejection of common sense purposeful action and intentionality is precisely what Nagel is saying Neo-Darwinian materialism cannot account for and therefore is deficient.  To bring in Wittgenstein again (as Kristen did well above), we should give pause to any theoretical model that co-opts or 'misuses' language for its purposes, or systematically disallows whole modes of language we use and in practice believe about the world. If we have a grind between a Neo-Darwinian rejection of all purpose-talk, and the clear-meaning sense in which we find end-goals and intentional purpose in other areas of life, only a capitulation to a 'scientism' would cause anyone to deny the daily experience of purpose. 

theBoSanders
theBoSanders

@MattCBarlow we need the help BIG time ;)

MattBarlow
MattBarlow

 @pluralform This conversation reminds me of the discussion we had for our first podcast episode (which was eventually scrapped). So, what I am about to say will probably be familiar to you...

 

I don't believe that the universe has a purpose - but it does have potential. What Cobb describes as a "purposive element" sounds much more akin to potential then final cause. Purpose pre-supposes an intent, while potential supposes the possibility of intent. Further, potentiality is something that science supports (especially within quantum physics and cosmology) and gives considerate support for. If theology could manage to disarm itself of it's obsession with Purpose and instead yield to the lure of possibility, why...just think of the potential! ;)

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

 @ReneeAxtell I like you're idea better. I think @MattBarlow  barlow ripped off his idea from the Never Ending Story--nothing coming right at us??? HA! (jk)

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

You're right though @MattBarlow  both disciplines--theology and science--are using data sets that are incomplete. The results from both fields of inquirey will be limited and distored until they give up Cartesian dualism.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

 @MattBarlow Yes! Well said dude.

 

One clarification though, Cobb uses the phrase "purposive element" in contrast to the mechanistic randomness which is prevelant among many neo-darwinian adherents in the scientific community.

 

A complete account of why any event occurs as it does requires both an account of the prior circumstances that impinged upon it and a statement of how it responds to those efficient causes. Cobb says it best, "The response is purposeful and plays its own role in deciding just what the new event will be.  

 

If science prefers the word "potential" thats cool, but Like I said, without  both sets of data, results are incomplete and distorted.