Teleology in biology is unavoidable. Dawkins was surely correct when he wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He even characterized that appearance as “overwhelming.” Of course, Dawkins does not believe living things were designed, and his entire project has been to convince his readers that the overwhelming appearance of design is an illusion.
The problem with the “it is all a grand illusion” position is that as science has progressed – even in the relatively short time since Dawkins wrote those words in 1987 – it has become increasingly more difficult to believe. Advances in our understanding of genetics have revealed a semiotic code of staggering elegance and complexity, the replication of which is far beyond the ability of our best computer programmers. The more we know about the cell, the more it becomes apparent that it is a marvel of nano-technology. Origin of life researchers, when they are honest, admit that even the most simple life is miraculously complex, and the likelihood of living things having arose spontaneously through chance interactions of matter is vanishingly small. I could go on, but you get the picture.
What is an honest materialist to do? One approach is to jettison materialism altogether, as famous former arch-atheist Antony Flew did. Flew insisted that while he did not believe in a personal God, he was nevertheless driven to deism by advances in origins of life science. He wrote that “[t]he philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and ‘coded chemistry’?” That question remains unanswered.
Another approach is to retain one’s materialism while positing the existence of yet-undiscovered natural telic laws. This is the approach Thomas Nagel took in his Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. It occurred to me recently that this approach may well be the most likely way for honest, curious and courageous materialists to accept the evidence on its own terms and at the same time find common ground with ID proponents.
RDFish is one of the most voracious proponents of materialism (which he prefers to call monist physicalism) ever to appear in these pages. In one of his comments he argued that biological ID is committed to dualism. I responded by arguing that while biological ID is certainly consistent with metaphysical dualism, it is not necessarily tied to it, and it can be accepted even by physicalist monists. See here.
In the linked post I argued that a physicalist monist can accept a version of ID through the following reasoning:
- Design, meaning the capacity to arrange matter for a purpose, exists as a category of causation.
- The capacity to arrange matter for a purpose can be reduced to any force that is capable of arranging matter in the present so that it will have an effect in the future.
- There are at least two candidates for causal forces that have the capacity to arrange matter for a purpose. (a) intelligent agents who have an immaterial mental capacity; (b) an impersonal non-conscious yet-to-be-discovered natural telic force.
- The monist rejects the existence of intelligent agents with immaterial mental capacities, because the existence of such agents obviously entails dualism.
- Instead, the monist can resort to the natural telic force.
- If such a natural telic force exists, the existence of design as a category of causation is no obstacle to accepting the truth of monist physicalism.
This get us to:
- If monist physicalism is true and a natural telic force exists, it is nevertheless possible objectively to infer design.
- Therefore, design may be inferred under monist physicalism using the explanatory filter.
- Therefore, ID does not depend on dualist metaphysical assumptions and can be accepted by a monist.
Which brings us back to Nagel. In his book Nagel argued that Neo-Darwinism has failed to account for the data and is therefore almost certainly false. But Nagel is an inveterate atheist and he is unwilling to give up on atheistic monism. For Nagel, rejecting Neo-Darwinism does not entail embracing a dualist conception of ID. Instead, he has posited what can be called a monist conception of ID by proposing the existence of natural telic laws.
In his book Being as Communion Bill Dembski writes that Nagel’s conception of teleology is completely consistent with ID writ large:
Nagel proposes to understand teleology in terms of natural teleological laws. These laws would be radically different from the laws of physics and chemistry that currently are paradigmatic of the laws of nature. And yet, as we shall see, such teleological laws fit quite naturally within an information-theoretic framework . . . his proposal, given in Mind and Cosmos . . . connects point for point with the account of information given in this book. Indeed, Nagel’s teleological laws are none other than the directed searches (or alternative searches) that are the basis of Conservation of Information . . . of this book.
When orthodox Christian theist Bill Dembski says that he and vigorously atheistic materialist Thomas Nagel hold views that can – at a fundamental level – be reconciled, the rest of us should sit up and take notice. And Dembski is not alone among theists in noting how Nagel’s views are compatible with their tradition broadly construed. Christian philosopher Edward Feser writes:
[Nagel] rightly suggests that theists ought to be open to the idea of immanent teleology of the Aristotelian sort. He may not be aware that medieval theologians like Aquinas were committed to precisely that.
Of course, Aquinas believed in the immanent teleology inherent in all things. The only difference between Aquinas and Nagel is that Aquinas believed that God infused those things with immanent teleology; whereas Nagel believes the teleology results from a natural telic law. But for our purposes isn’t the obvious teleology – that even Dawkins recognizes while denying – the important thing, at least as an initial question about the objective nature of things?
If theists and materialists can agree about the objective existence of teleology in nature, can we not also agree that – at least while we are doing science – questions about the ultimate provenance of that teleology can be held in abeyance?
I see a number of advantages of this approach for both sides. For the materialists, the advantages are obvious. They will be able to accept on face value the common sense conclusion their materialism has until now forced them to deny. Teleology exists. And at the same time they will not be forced to allow Lewontin’s dreaded “divine foot” in the door, because a “natural telic law” is not even an agent, far less a divine (or even conscious) agent. For theists, as I have argued all along, ID can be adopted to both a monist and a dualist metaphysics. And I, when I am not doing science, will continue to argue that God is the best candidate for the provenance of the teleology. At the same time, by allowing for the possibility of a natural telic law, we ID proponents will not have the doors of science slammed in our face on account of the “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” argument.