According to conventional wisdom, the dawn of modern science dispelled the gloom of moth-bitten superstition, and banished purposes from nature. But such Enlightenment propaganda leaves out the tradition the modern world inherited from its predecessors. At the heart of the modern scientific conception of the world is the idea that nature is a knowable order. Without this belief, Galileo would never have troubled himself to roll balls down inclined planes. Exploring chemical reactions would be pointless. Geneticists would have no reason to take pains sequencing nucleic acid base pairs. What modern scientists take for granted was established by reason in the ancient world—by philosophy. In Book II of the Physics, Aristotle argues that nature’s obvious regularities—its tendency to act in a given way under given circumstances—reveal an ordering to specific ends:
For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.1
In other words, although “chance” events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, disclose nature’s regularities and testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is almost always attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon show the order and purpose of nature. Far from being opposed to modern science, teleology is its sine qua non.
The ascendance of the Darwinian narrative leaves the situation unchanged. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection encompasses two pieces, chance variation and natural selection: (1) genetic novelty originates in chance, and (2) novel forms less suited to existence tend to fail in passing their genes to posterity. While the latter point may well be a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the world, the former point simply puts a name (and a deceptive one) on an unknown. As Aristotle’s classic definition observes, chance is the intersection of two otherwise unrelated lines of causality. Chance itself is not a cause; to invoke chance is not to explain, but to label an unknown. To the extent that any theory relies on chance, that theory is not science, but rather ignorance.2
The champions of chance argue that teleology is an intellectual opiate and kills the quest for the acatual mechanism of change. On the contrary, teleology does not eliminate the need for an efficient causal explanation: just because one appreciates the sublime order of the parts of a horse does not negate the molecular forces that maintain its form. Teleology compliments other modes of explanation.
The source of the many prejudices people hold against teleology is that an order in nature apparently points to
- an Orderer, and
- a natural moral law (order).
And these are both true. The source of people's fear is the misconception that God somehow imposes the moral order on the world from the outside. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whom would you most trust to write the instruction manual for your lawnmower? Obviously the person who designed and built it. My take is that in the same fashion, revealed moral laws (i.e., the Ten Commandments) are simply God giving us certainty about how to find happiness through the regularities we observe in nature on our own.
The natural moral law is inscribed within creation—it is an integral part of its workings. The "law" we learn simply makes note of regularities in human existence (and in the universe at large) and enjoins us to work with them for our ultimate happiness.
Forget about crime. Forget about sin. Forget about "right and wrong." Disobeying the moral law is worse than a crime: it's a mistake.3 In the same way as one knows better than to spit into the wind, a healthy society doesn't (in my view) encourage certain practices, for example, the taking of any innocent human life, rape, extramarital sexual relations, divorce, contraception, and so many other things that have become accepted in our society. The West is dying because we won't listen to God—yes—but also because we are too full of ourselves and seeking our immediate gratification even to hear nature.
No matter what one thinks about the content of the natural moral law, anyone who values science in the least has to agree that there are regularities in nature. We can argue about what these regularities indicate, but there should be no disagreement that learning these regularities and working with them is the way to find happiness in this world.
1. Physics, Book II, chapter 2, 198b34–199, Hardie and Gaye translation.
3. A variation on Talleyrand. "Stupid" might be more accurate.
Classes began last week, so I've been busy laying a solid foundation for the semester. This piece is partially something I've been working on for something else.