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Annals of Atheism II: Mechanism Over Teleology

May 23, 2009

The second theme that Dr. Barr deals with is the triumph of mechanism over teleology. The Biblical religions had the concept of a natural order, but they saw that order as embodying purpose, which gave rise to the science of teleology. Teleology (Greek: telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design and purpose. A teleological school of thought is one that holds all things to be designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists. As a school of thought it can be contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as having no design or purpose and is one of the philosophical homes of atheism. Teleology would say that a person has eyes because he has the need of sight (form following function), while naturalism would say that a person has sight because he has eyes (function following form).

The arrangement of the world and the processes of nature the Biblical religions saw as being directed toward beneficent ends. That is why Christianity had little difficulty in accepting the naturalistic science of Aristotle, which was based on final causes. However, the Scientific Revolution occurred when it was realized that final causes could be dispensed with altogether in physics and that phenomena could be adequately explained in a completely mechanistic way in terms of preceding physical events. Even in biology, apparent purpose is now thought to arise from the undirected mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations. The materialist or metaphysical naturalist argues that the disappearance of purpose from nature undercuts the idea that nature is designed.

Dr. Barr continues the story:
“The second theme of the materialist’s story was the triumph of mechanism over teleology. Instead of seeing purpose in nature, and thus a Person behind the purpose, science came to see only the operation of impersonal laws. There was no need for a cosmic designer, for it was the laws of physics that shaped and sculpted the world in which we live. When Laplace was asked by Napoleon why God was never mentioned in his great treatise on celestial mechanics, Laplace famously answered, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This revealed a shift in perspective. Whereas once the laws of nature had been seen as pointing to a lawgiver, they were now seen by some as constituting in themselves, and by themselves, a sufficient explanation of reality. This brings us to the second plot twist in the story of science. In the twentieth century another shift in perspective took place. One might call it the aesthetic turn. This requires some explanation.

Macrophysics begins with phenomena that can be observed with the senses, perhaps aided by simple instruments, like telescopes. It finds regularities in those phenomena and seeks mathematical rules that accurately describe them. Physicists call such rules empirical formulas or phenomenological laws. At a later stage, these rules are found to follow from some deeper and more general laws, which usually require more abstract and abstruse mathematics to express them.

Underlying these, in turn, are found yet more fundamental laws. As this deepening has occurred, two things have happened. First, there has been an increasing unification of physics. Whereas, in the early days of science, nature seemed to be a potpourri of many kinds of phenomena with little apparent relation, such as heat, sound, magnetism, and gravity, it later became clear that there were deep connections. This trend toward unification greatly accelerated throughout the twentieth century, until we now have begun to discern that the laws of physics make up a single harmonious mathematical system.

Second, physicists began to look not only at the surface physical effects, but increasingly at the form of the deep laws that underlie them. They began to notice that those laws exhibit a great richness and profundity of mathematical structure, and that they are, indeed, remarkably beautiful and elegant from the mathematical point of view.

As time went on, the search for new theories became guided not only by detailed fitting of experimental data, but by aesthetic criteria. A classic example of this was the discovery of the Dirac Equation in 1928. Paul Dirac was looking for an equation to describe electrons that was consistent with both relativity and quantum theory. He hit upon a piece of mathematics that struck him as “pretty.” “[It] was a pretty mathematical result,” he said. “I was quite excited over it. It seemed that it must be of some importance.” This led him to the discovery that has been justly described as among the highest achievements of twentieth–century science.

The same quest for mathematical beauty dominates the search for fundamental theories today. One of the leading theoretical particle physicists in the world today, Edward Witten, trying to explain to a skeptical science reporter why he believed in superstring theory in spite of the dearth of experimental evidence for it, said, “I don’t think I’ve succeeded in conveying to you its wonder, incredible consistency, remarkable elegance, and beauty.”

All of this has changed the context in which we think about design in nature. When the questions physicists asked were simply about particular sensible phenomena, like stars, rainbows, or crystals, it may have seemed out of place to talk about them, however beautiful they were, as being fashioned by the hand of God. They could be accounted for satisfactorily by the laws of physics. But now, when it is the laws of physics themselves that are the object of curiosity and aesthetic appreciation, and when it has been found that they form a single magnificent edifice of great subtlety, harmony, and beauty, the question of a cosmic designer seems no longer irrelevant, but inescapable.” Mechanism, along with Elvis, has left the house as it were.

The principal arguments for beauty are:

  1. We have a strong intuition, especially when in the presence of great art or extreme natural or human beauty, that the beauty is real and transcends its material manifestations. Although such intuitions are not always correct, they are strong enough prima facie evidence that very compelling arguments to the contrary would be needed to cancel them out.
  2. Creative artists generally experience their efforts to create great art/literature/music in terms that assume the objective existence of beauty, albeit mediated by their subjective experience
  3. Although one can make plausible evolutionary explanations for finding beauty in potential sexual partners and in healthy animals that might be food or predators, the experience of beauty is much wider than these categories and includes visions of things for which there can be no direct evolutionary advantage (like clouds seen from aeroplanes, or images from telescopes).
  4. Scientists, especially physicists, have found that mathematical beauty is a very useful guide to a valid theory.
  5. It is very difficult to speak of beauty in a coherent way without assuming its objective existence, albeit mediated by highly subjective and cultural factors.

The splendor of a great work of art communicates the radiance which belongs to the truth of things, what the Scholastic philosophers called pulchrum, beauty as a determination of being as such. In a similar way, it is proposed, the glory of God shines forth in the life and person of Jesus Christ. His words and works of love express the self-communicating goodness of being, a goodness derived from being’s transcendent ground or source.

John Paul II: “In reasoning about nature, the human being can rise to God: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). This is to recognize as a first stage of divine Revelation the marvelous “book of nature”, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator.

If human beings with their intelligence fail to recognize God as Creator of all, it is not because they lack the means to do so, but because their free will and their sinfulness place an impediment in the way. Seen in this light, reason is valued without being overvalued. The results of reasoning may in fact be true, but these results acquire their true meaning only if they are set within the larger horizon of faith: “All man’s steps are ordered by the Lord: how then can man understand his own ways?” (Proverbs 20:24).

For the Old Testament, then, faith liberates reason in so far as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires true meaning. In brief, human beings attain truth by way of reason because, enlightened by faith, they discover the deeper meaning of all things and most especially of their own existence.”

In 1931, Hermann Weyl, one of the great mathematicians and physicists of the twentieth century, gave a lecture at Yale University in which he said the following:
“Many people think that modern science is far removed from God. I find, on the contrary, that it is much more difficult today for the knowing person to approach God from history, from the spiritual side of the world, and from morals; for there we encounter the suffering and evil in the world, which it is difficult to bring into harmony with an all–merciful and almighty God. In this domain we have evidently not yet succeeded in raising the veil with which our human nature covers the essence of things. But in our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.”

As I noted in an earlier essay, I’m not seeking to replace atheist conceits with Christian ones. Nowhere here will I posit the existence of God from a scientific argument on the nature of Beauty or the demise of mechanism in the recent history of science. Alan Mittleman has demolished the usefulness of such arguments as far as I am concerned. (LINK). God is not a scientific hypotheses.

These essays are measured responses to a virulent and obnoxious atheist conceit that says Christianity has been debunked by science and has no role in scientific discourse or endeavors. To be perfectly truthful there is a form of Christianity typified by Christian fundamentalists who assert a certain Biblical literalism (The earth is 6000 years old; Intelligent Design is opposed to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, etc. etc.) that should be read the riot act and shown the door. Most forms of Jewish and Christian faith do not support such biblical literalism. However some atheists attempt to paint a broad stroke, toss in issues of faith such as Transubstantiation or the Resurrection to muddy the waters and attempt to muscle Roman Catholicism out the door too. This is for you guys.

Along with this short lecture from John Paul II:
This is why the Christian’s relationship to philosophy (and science) requires thorough-going discernment. In the New Testament, especially in the Letters of Saint Paul, one thing emerges with great clarity: the opposition between “the wisdom of this world” and the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The depth of revealed wisdom disrupts the cycle of our habitual patterns of thought, which are in no way able to express that wisdom in its fullness.

The beginning of the First Letter to the Corinthians poses the dilemma in a radical way. The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. It is here that every attempt to reduce the Father’s saving plan to purely human logic is doomed to failure. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the learned? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” [1 Corinthians 1:20], the Apostle asks emphatically.

The wisdom of the wise is no longer enough for what God wants to accomplish; what is required is a decisive step towards welcoming something radically new: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Human wisdom refuses to see in its own weakness the possibility of its strength; yet Saint Paul is quick to affirm: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet to reveal the mystery of his saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers “foolishness” and a “scandal”. Adopting the language of the philosophers of his time, Paul comes to the summit of his teaching as he speaks the paradox: “God has chosen in the world… that which is nothing to reduce to nothing things that are” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:28). In order to express the gratuitous nature of the love revealed in the Cross of Christ, the Apostle is not afraid to use the most radical language of the philosophers in their thinking about God. Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the Cross represents, while the Cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks. It is not the wisdom of words, but the Word of Wisdom which Saint Paul offers as the criterion of both truth and salvation.

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