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Can Darwinism Survive without Teleology?

Ever since Darwin, the concept of teleology has been suspect among biologists. What is so controversial about teleology? Most likely, its history! From the earliest Greek philosophers on, it was widely believed that the world must have a purpose because, as Aristotle would put it, “nature does nothing in vain,” and neither does God, as a Jew or Christian would say. In this often misunderstood view, any change in this world is due to final causes that move things to an ultimate goal, a predetermined end. All things would achieve certain ends or goals because they were designed that way by nature or by God; that’s how hormones, for instance, are supposed to reach their target cells.

However, this belief came under attack when scientists—still called “natural philosophers” at the time—began searching for physical and material explanations, for eternal physical laws that regulate falling bodies and the motion of planets.  It is at this point in the discussion that Charles Darwin comes into the picture. He replaced teleological explanations with physical explanations in terms of what he called natural selection. According to some, Darwin rephrased teleology from an “a priori drive” to an “a posteriori result.” Was this the end of teleology? Darwin may have thought it was, but let’s find out.

Biology Has a Teleological Dimension

What makes biology so inherently teleological? Biological features can be understood in terms of effects—that is, in terms of survival problems that need to be effectively solved. In other words, they serve a function; the green color of a caterpillar has a function, namely, to deceive potential predators; such is their end or goal—or in more neutral, biological terms, such is their function. One could also say that camouflage is “for” deceiving, just like a knife is “for” cutting. So in biology, it remains very common to ask what a feature is “for.” Just like pumps are for pumping (that’s their desired effect), so eye patterns on butterfly wings are “for” protection (that’s the advantageous effect it has on fending enemies off). This is a function of eye patterns, but certainly not a purpose or intention of butterflies.

Prior to any talk of evolutionary theory, William Paley (1743-1805) had argued that something as beautifully designed as the universe must have had a Designer, just like a watch does. In the footsteps of Paley, Darwin also saw a beautiful design in nature, but unlike Paley, he viewed nature as something designed by the trial-and-error test of natural selection during a process of evolutionary change. No matter what, in either case, the results must be design-like (in the sense of well-adapted), because if they were not, they simply would not work in solving problems. If the eye lens, for example, did not function like a physical lens, one would not see very well. There is teleology again.

Apparently, biological features can have and do have effects that are advantageous (or detrimental) to various degrees. But how that is possible in itself is an altogether different story—actually a meta-physical story.

The Metaphysics of Teleology

Somehow our universe has been designed in such a way that specific designs do work, whether it is for better or for worse. It is only due to this metaphysical notion of design and teleology that we can talk about biological designs; all biological designs are “design-based” designs. It is one of the most perplexing things about our universe that it allows for any kind of design to work the way it works.

Did Darwin ignore this part of the story? Or did he really discard teleology? Some keep stressing that he replaced teleology with the causality of natural selection. One of them was George Bernard Shaw who once said that Charles Darwin threw Paley’s “watch” into the ocean. Well, Shaw was wrong. If Darwin did throw something away, it was Paley’s “watchmaker,” but certainly not his famous “watch.” Darwin never threw away the design concept—it was actually essential to his theory.

The artifact analogy of design is as basic to Darwinism as it is to Paley’s natural theology. Since the heart is designed like a pump, it is a successful design “for” circulating blood. After Darwin, the heart still existed “for” circulation; the cause of its existence may have been different, but its teleology was not. However, Darwin ignored, or at least bypassed, the following question: How come that certain biological designs “work,” and are “successful” and “effective” in reaching their “goal”? What is it that makes them “goal-directed”? What carries them through the filter of natural selection?

It’s here that teleology keeps coming back. There is teleology in the biological world because the animate world is design-like—as much so as there is teleology in the technical world of designers because that world is design-like as well. Natural selection may explain that a fine working design has a better chance of being reproduced, but ultimately it cannot explain why such a design is working so well.

And that’s where teleology is needed—even in Darwinism. In that sense, Darwin did not change teleology from an “a priori drive” into an “a posteriori result.” Teleology is not a biological outcome a posteriori but a metaphysical given a priori. Natural selection does not create teleology, but its working is based on teleology.

Where Does Teleology Come From?

The answer may seem mystifying at first sight: Teleology must have been built into nature—as some kind of all-pervasive architecture. It may be so all-pervasive, though, that it easily escapes attention. Natural selection on its own cannot do the “job” unless it works within a framework of purpose and design. Without this “cosmic design,” there couldn’t even be any natural selection. Natural selection can only select those specific designs that are in accordance with the cosmic design (by the way, designers, engineers, and architects must do the same thing).

As it turns out, science does not operate in a vacuum, but it works within a philosophical framework of pre-existing assumptions—and one of them is teleology (some call it cosmic teleology, in distinction from the older idea that biological designs are the product of predetermined goals).  Darwin may have thought he could reduce teleology to causality, but his causality mechanism of natural selection can only work on condition that there is teleology in nature. There is “something” in successful biological designs that carries them through the filter of natural selection. To put it briefly, organisms are not teleological because they have survived; on the contrary, their survival is mainly due to the fact that they are teleological. Creation is “loaded” with cosmic design, just like a dice that constantly throws a six must be loaded.

Let me come to a conclusion. The inescapable idea behind all of this is that our universe is ultimately an “intelligent project,” created by an Intelligent Designer. The assumption of a Creator would explain that the universe exists and is what it is; and the assumption of a cosmic design would explain why the universe is this way. In that sense, even Darwinism needs some Divine Help—whether its fans like it or not. There is no way Darwinism could survive without teleology.
(Image credit: AJ MacDonald)

Gerard M. Verschuuren

Written by

Gerard M. Verschuuren is a human geneticist who also earned a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He studied and worked at universities in Europe and the United States. His latest books include God and Evolution?: Science Meets Faith (Pauline Books, 2012), What Makes You Tick: A New Paradigm for Neuroscience (Solas Press, 2012), Darwin’s Philosophical Legacy: The Good and the Not-So-Good (Lexington Books, 2012), Of All That Is, Seen and Unseen (Queenship Publishing, 2012), and his upcoming book The Destiny of the Universe: In Pursuit of the Great Unknown (Paragon House, 2014). He can be contacted at Where-Do-We-Come-From.com.

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  • Frank Attanucci

    For an fascinating look at the early years of the so-called “conflict between science and religion,” I highly recommend the 1978 article, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” by Yale historian Frank M. Turner.

    Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/231040

  • 42Oolon

    I don't know about Darwinism, but evolution by natural selection has survived for 150 years without needing to demonstrate what the "purpose" of phenotypes are. The reason it survives is that it keeps being confirmed as being the best explanation for observation, and that is all a scientific theory is.
    He is arguing that function is the same thing as design, it is not.

    "One could also say that camouflage is “for” deceiving, just like a knife is “for” cutting."

    Evolution shows us that function can and does arise without design all the time in the biological world.

    • geekborj

      One of the teloses (ends) of natural selection is survival (that is: increased fitness). Thus, in the end the argument holds true: In all sciences including biology, teliology cannot be absent. Whether it is increased efficiency or increased entropy, the end or object of mechanism is always there.

      Even light as a physical phenomenon attains its objective: to travel in a straight line and constant speed.

      The Darwinian principle (natural selection) is a very scientific way of rewording "wonderful works of God". In short: the Catholic point of view is not in conflict with Darwinism as long as it is correctly interpreted in light of the Faith.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        > The end of natural selection is survival.

        I don't follow this. Natural selection is only a human description of reality: What survives survives. How is survival an "end" of natural selection?

        > The end of light is to travel in a straight line.

        This is simply what light does. How does that make it an "end"?

        • geekborj

          Natural selection is a human description of what seems to point to survival as the purpose of the mechanism. That is, through natural selection, those left are those with acceptable fitness level. Thus, theory of evolution can still be explained using telos.

          "While it simply what light does." is a very unscientific explanation why light travels in straight line and constant speed. Science is an explanation of the cause of things. The statement would be as religious as "Light simply does as God designed it." For Thomas Acquinas, the only explanation is because the final cause of light is to travel in a straight line and at constant speed (in vacuum).

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So, the question is, does Aristotle's idea of final cause or "purpose" really have a place in natural science? I don't see how Verschuuren has shown it does. That doesn't mean that final cause or "purpose" does not have a place in philosophical arguments based on the findings of natural science.

          • geekborj

            That's right. Verschuuren was not able to show it adequately. But i think this is what the main thesis is. IMHO, "purpose" have a place in the natural science.

            I think natural science directly benefits and actually depends on philosophy at large. Thus, final causes or just "causes" in general are the very essence of all sciences.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Can you explain these statements and provide some examples?

          • geekborj

            Science relies on principles that are philosophical in nature:
            1. Nature is ordered and rational. It can be intellectualized and understood by the human intellect. Without this assumption, we fall into pointless argumentations and experimentations. Even scientific journals should not make any sense. We also have to admit that randomness is just another level of order in nature -- the fact that we can describe their evolution and even their distributions.
            2. "Cause" precedes "effect". Correlation is a necessary condition but not a necessary one. The "effect" is the purpose of "causes". When the "effect" are not the true purpose, the causes become "not good". E.g. a ballpen that is used for opening cans are not good ballpens. Ballpens become good when they are used for writing.
            3. If the reality is the effect, there has to be cause(s). This is where epistemology and gnoseology comes in. In fact, experiments and natural observations rely on this principle.
            4. Truth must be simple. From here, the Principle of Parsimony follows. Also, that there must be hierarchy of truths depending on the complexity. The more complex are the statements, the higher probability that it is false.
            5. Truth begets truths. It is from here that the powers of induction and deduction originate. False predictions can only come from flawed theories (may not be not totally wrong, though). Of course, they can come from wrong ones, too.
            6. Truth is one and does not change. From here, the principle of objectivity is derived. Furthermore, the need for proof for uniqueness of solution is required (at least for mathematically formulated solutions). Also, that there must be hierarchy of truths based on the degree of allowed differences or "speciation". The highest truths are those that do not change: Conservation Principles (Justice), Symmetry Principles (Beauty), etc.

          • josh

            1. Don't confuse working assumptions with presumptions. Science is an attempt to find out if nature can be understood, it does not presume it is ordered and rational, although in many ways it appears to be.

            2.Science does not particularly work in terms of causes, it works in terms of correlations. Certainly it doesn't assume that an effect is a purpose. A 'true purpose' as you describe it appears to be entirely subjective and nothing to do with science. A ball pen is, it is not trying to be a 'good' ball pen for you. 'Ball pen' is in fact just your description. This is not science.

            3.Reality encompasses both effects and causes. Experiments look for predictability.

            4. The principle of parsimony is not that 'Truth must be simple'. It is that you shouldn't assume a more complex truth than you have evidence to support. Truth can be as complex as it wants.

            5. False predictions can come from incomplete theories as well, or from bad inferences based on a good theory.

            6. Truth is one in the sense that we expect a consistent theory not to have conflicting truths; in practice science works with many truths although ideally we would like to relate them to each other. Uniqueness of solution just has to do with predictability and how deterministic our system is. But given the probabilistic nature of QM I'm not sure what to make of this.
            Really not sure where you are going with a hierarchy of truths. All truths are equally valid in a scientific system, none are 'nobler' than others, although some are more general. Since you said earlier that truth does not change it doesn't make sense to say now that 'highest' truths are those that don't change. Conservation and symmetry are closely related to each other but putting some undefined gloss on them (Beauty, Justice, etc?) isn't scientific.

          • geekborj

            1. Working assumptions or presumptions, they look the same it seems, as long as the scientist is willing to change it after proven wrong. Science as an attempt to find out if nature can be understood has been solved by the Ancients. The answer is YES and it produced the sciences of today. Similarly, "Testing whether nature is scientific through scientific method" seems to be absurd.
            2. "Science does not particularly work in terms of causes, it works in terms of correlations." This results to "correlation science". In hard sciences such as Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Biology and the like, we don't say: "The orbit of earth around the sun is highly correlated with an ellipse." Correlations, as we see, cannot result to better certainty and precision of our understanding of nature (presumes nature can be understood, see #1).

            3. Correct, and I agree. See #2. To add however, there is always a limit to our physical understanding. Read uncertainty principle. There's always a fundamental limit to our knowledge of nature: Planck's length, Planck's time, etc.
            4. I don't think there's inconsistency here. We do not say that all truths are simple. We are just saying simpler truths are much much better.
            5. Thanks for this. I missed the other possible cases. Thus, we have logic and mathematics.
            6. The probabilistic nature of QM just puts us to another level of predictability: The predictability of the probability distribution/density relating it to the "wave function". Indeed, it is ultimate to explain the reason why the Schroedinger equation works well, so far.

            Indeed. Some theories are more general. The more general they are, the more true they are for more and more objects or events. This is the exact sense we are trying to say about hierarchy. Thus, the special theory of relativity (SR) is nearer to the truth than newtonian mechanics (three laws of motion, or Lagrangian formulation). QM seems to be higher truth than newtonian mechanics but still a question whether there is higher truth to both QM and SR (or GR altogether).

          • http://www.facebook.com/darrintisdale Darrin Tisdale

            Actually, many of the scientific principles you've cited are only relevant within certain frameworks of understanding. Quantum mechanics clearly demonstrates that nature is not ordered and rational, that cause does *not* precede effect, and that truth not simple at all. Thus, all the assumptions that underpin the anthropomorphized framework around which you have inferred an "intelligent" scheme to reality break down completely when viewed within this framework. Therefore, every one of your assertions have no universal underpinning, only a possible underpinning within in the framework you've described. The Absolute of which you speak is, unfortunately, not absolute nor universal. I suggest that you learn more about alternative frameworks such as quantum mechanics before making such ill-informed statements.

          • geekborj

            Quantum Mechanics (QM) in this early stage has no definitive interpretations. Be it so, quantum mechanics still ascribe to the "cause precedes effect" principle. It's just that the effect is to the overall state of the system that can only be described practically as probability distributions (as interpretation of the quantum "state"). Measurements in QM, for example, still follows this principle since generally, all changes in state (effect) is QM application of an operator (an operation, a cause).

            In fact, QM is a kind of anthropomorphized framework to start with --- it was nature as perceived by us, human beings --- we can't try to be more (or less) than what we are.

            All scientific "framework" will have to follow from the universal principles I have written above. Otherwise, the science that assumes an intelligible universe will breakdown and there is no point in going to universities and earning a PhD in Physics or similar degree.

            As per the Absolute, I cannot perceive any merit to replying to a negative statement without any explanation. I suggest supporting this claim first.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Finality was called the "cause of causes" for the excellent reason that no efficient cause could be such unless it "always or for the most part" achieved the same end. That is, A cannot cause B (rather than C,D, E, etc.) unless there were something in A in virtue of which it "points" toward B, specifically. In physics, the telos is called an "attractor basin."

            Sodium and chlorine combine to form salt, not salamanders. Heavy bodies move toward the point of minimum gravitational potential; they don't fly up or swerve in loop-the-loops. Tiger cubs grow into adult tigers, not into tiger lilies.

            Hence, one evidence of natural telos is the existence of a scientific law, or regularity.

            Also, there are three sorts of "end" or telos:

            1. Termination. Motion simply stops. An apple does not become redder and redder, but ceases at some point. A chemical reaction reaches equilibrium. (This includes cyclical equilibria like Belusov reactions. Remember, Aristotle regarded orbiting planets as being "at rest.")

            2. Perfection. The thing achieves all that is necessary to be that thing. Per-fectus means "thoroughly made. Any further motion (change) results in de-fectus, or deficiency. The tiger cub becomes an adult tiger and does not continue maturing.

            3. Intention. The thing acts to achieve an end. A bird does not gather twigs at random, but in order to make a nest. A lioness does not chase a gazelle for no particular reason, but to obtain a meal.

            In evolution, the purposes of the organism, the what-it-is-trying-to-do, will determine what sort of mutations make it relatively more fit. This telos contributes also to the perfection of the species by accruing features and traits that make it more fit for those ends. Hence, the variety of beaks on Galapagos finches are the consequence of what the varieties are trying to do with the beak.

            Keep in mind, too, that final causes are not supposed to be alternatives for efficient causes, let alone the subset of metric, controllable efficient causes with which Baconian science deals. Nor with material causes or formal causes, for that matter. A full understanding of a thing requires a grasp of all four, since they are interrelated.

            Hope this helps.

          • geekborj

            Great explanations. Thanks.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        I suppose the question here is "so what?" Evolution is a theory about gene frequencies in populations. It doesn't say anything about spiritual matters.

        • geekborj

          Telos is not necessary spiritual.

          For example, nature seems to extremize itself when it comes to energy and entropy. Thus, the End of nature seems to achieve either minimum or maximum --- or to be efficient. What is spiritual about this?

          • Steve Willy


          • geekborj

            Reading my own answer. You are right.

            As for evolution being a theory about gene frequencies in populations, what does evolution propose as the "guiding principles" in the evolution? Even random events have scales where organization appears (we can talk about their probability distribution functions, entropy, etc). Evolution theory proposes mechanisms and quantities that are being extrema-tized such as fitness in the process.

      • josh

        Natural selection does not have an end, certainly not survival. Hence, most species die out over time. The result of a process is always there but this is just a tautology, it doesn't imply that the result was an end. Also, for the record, light does not travel in straight lines or at constant velocity in general.

        • geekborj

          For every result, there is a cause. Thus, every event is the telos of an event that caused it.

          For the record, light does travel in straight lines and at constant velocity (in vacuum). It is the space-time that is bent (see theories of relativity by Einstein).

          • josh

            Your 'thus' doesn't follow. I could equally say, if for every event there is a cause, then the cause is the telos of the event. And that's putting aside that it is not clear that every result has a cause. At most you are saying that 'whatever happens, happens' and defining whatever happens 'after' as the telos of whatever happened 'before'. This is trivial and unnecessary.

            Light travels along geodesics, i.e. the shortest paths in a curved spacetime. It makes little sense to say that these are straight lines, although they can be thought of as a generalization of straight lines to a curved space. As you say, light travels at a constant speed in a constant medium, including vacuum, but the world isn't made up of a constant medium.

          • geekborj

            It is important to distinguish between cause and effect. Otherwise, our science will be intractable. Gravity as an effect of the presence of mass (or energy) in space-time heralded a lot of "discoveries" of other physical causes since Newton simply proposed the quantification of "gravity" using mechanics.

            "Whatever happens, happens" is far from what we are trying to express here. This is strawman. With recognition of telos, we aspire for ultimate explanation of phenomena in nature.

          • josh

            It's not a strawman, it's a reductio. If you take out all the unsupportable assertions it's what you are left with. Telos doesn't work as an ultimate explanation.

          • geekborj

            Thanks Josh. Maybe it depends on our assumptions. My point here is that there are alternative views in trying to answer the question of the Universe. In this regard teleology, IMHO, answers more than just the descriptive explanation.

            In physics, we delineate between kinematics and dynamics. Kinematics are descriptions of motion while dynamics attempt to answer the cause and effect of motion.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          The Law of Proportionate Causation requires that causes be proportionate to the effects. Natural selection is a process, not a thing; that is, it is a description of what happens and to some extent a tautology. However, the telos of evolution may be broadly defined at each level.

          At the most general level, it is the "origin of species." That is, its end is the evolution of new species from old. Someone should write a book about that.

          At the specific level -- that is, at the level of a particular individual species -- the telos is greater fitness for the current niche occupied by that species.
          At the individual level, the telos is the striving of organisms to survive and reproduce, in pursuit of which organisms will try this and that until hitting on a survival strategy that works. This is especially the case when the Umwelt alters so as to change the current niche sufficiently to make old strategies ineffective.

          The telos is not 'survival,' per se. And that B is a telos does not imply that it is always attained successfully. The telos of an archer is to hit the mark, but many an arrow may miss without invalidating this rather obvious point.

          • josh

            There is no 'Law of Proportionate Causation', I suggest you start thinking in terms of actual science and not obsolete speculations.

            "...its end is the evolution of new species from old." Again, an outcome isn't the same as a telos unless you are simply defining things tautologically. Evolution is a description of a process, yes, which we are interested in as the primary description of the adaptation and diversification of species. It doesn't follow that nature, or the process, or anything are trying to accomplish those phenomena. Natural selection plus population isolation tends to generate different species and new adaptations, but natural selection and isolation don't have that or any other end. Gravity under certain conditions tends to form matter into spheres, but the end of gravity isn't to make spheres.

            At the species level, a species may become more or less adapted to its niche, no telos here. The better adapted ones are more likely to survive and the less more likely to disappear. At the individual level, organisms don't 'try this and that', they largely do what they are instinctively obliged to do, which, again, will frequently end up killing most of them when their environment changes.

            "... that B is a telos does not imply that it is always attained..." Which gets back to the problem that you don't actually have any reason to assert a general telos and people simply offer ad hoc exceptions and special pleading when that fact is pointed out. The bleeding obvious point is that we can speak of an archer's telos because an archer has a consciousness similar to our own which includes an awareness of desires and simulation of future outcomes so the archer can want a particular thing to happen and plan accordingly. But it is unwarranted to try and force that description of a conscious person onto the mindless universe at large. In fact we find the opposite, the description of the conscious person in terms of wants and plans is only a (very useful) approximation. The person at a more fundamental level 'works' on telos-less interactions of mindless fields and particles.

          • geekborj

            1. I do not see why the "law of proportionate causation" is an "obsolete speculation". Can you cite an example to justify this thesis?

            2. It is good that you have expressed your point here quite clearly. Things "tend" to do what it seems to do while they are just doing what they aught to do by their nature. Gravity tend to form nearly spherical object (in space) due to their very nature to cause attraction of particles with mass. Evolutionary factors/'forces' (such as natural selection and isolation, random mutation) tend to result to a set of interacting species adopted to a resulting fitness landscape.

            The same observation can be made for dogs. Dogs simply do what their nature makes them do: wag their tail to the most familiar being they sense --- people tend to perceive this as "love". This, I believe is consistent with the "telos-less" explanation.

            3. There is a chance that our explanation of teloses here may be flawed or weak (as pointed out by Josh, rightly most of the time). There could be several causes and the main object of teleology is the Ultimate End.

            In any case, cause-effect is not one-to-one. Gravity may not be the only cause of having spherical self-gravitating matter in space. Evolutionary factors may not be the only set of cause responsible for emergence and stability of new genetic pools (or species).

            We also have to differentiate between immediate causes or effect against ultimate cause and effect. For "mindless fields and particles" their ultimate end is perhaps simply to act on each other as they do (obviously a tautology, indeed!). For those who ascribe to telos, these are material causes for other potentialities to become act such as for a human being to have a body. Maybe, we can equate "fundamental level" particles as the "material causes" and the forces (fields) as the "efficient causes".

            Teleology is asking about what is the true nature of things and how the things are related to each other (via cause and effect relation) as to how they act on another to convert the potential to actual. Actual thing must be part of the ultimate purpose of things.

      • Mary B Moritz

        While the Author of the article looks at teleology as understood by Paley, you look at it as Aristoteles understood it. And for living beings, I am totally with you, that they follow some ends (intrinsic finality); with regard to physical phenomena, though, many of them can be described by physical laws: light simply goes straight if it is not distracted by an outside obstacle. The same applies to the planetary motion.

        • geekborj

          IMHO, the argument can be extended even to physical phenomena. In physics, Hamiltonian and Lagrangian approaches uses principles such as "least action" or even Fermat's principle of "least time" (at least for light). Thus, we must say that the principle is the cause of their behavior, not the other way around.

          • Mary B Moritz

            Thanks! Always learning! I am not a physicist, I am biologist/biocgemist. I thought, that "teleology" is not opposed to physical laws, but not necessarily needed for explanation; in biology, though, it comes the point where you are lost without....

          • geekborj

            Well, I realized that all along it is teleology that has been inspiring the cause-effect chain investigation of Nature. It's just that natural philosophy is in a way limited to explanation within the natural level -- those that human intellect can "see". For christians, esp. catholics, we rely on revelation "axioms" which are held essential part of the Faith.

          • nych

            No, the principle is not the cause. The speed of light is not a "speed limit" that light "knows" to obey. Physical "laws" including least action, etc. are NOT laws in any real sense, and are not the "cause" of ANYTHING. They are merely human descriptions of what we observe after the fact in a given situation. There need be no reason, purpose, or intention. Photons just do what they do, and science attempts to discern the patterns or predictable repetitions in this phenomenon.

      • http://www.facebook.com/darrintisdale Darrin Tisdale

        I have never encountered the religious concept of "wonderful works of God" being equated to survival. That concept, in itself, requires a leap of faith.

        • geekborj

          Precisely why it can only be linked with the Catholic faith, a specific creed.

    • Joseph Bailey

      Natural Selection is THE teleogical assumption of all time. Arguing that all the matter, space, time, so forth, simply exists ignores data that screams purpose, in some way or another.

      • nych

        The data "screams purpose" only because humans have an innate tendency to ascribe agency, a useful evolved trait if that rustle in the savannah grass might be a lion, but no guarantee that every bent blade of grass IS in fact a lion.

  • Octavo

    I was expecting a slightly more sophisticated argument than run of the mill creationist arguments like, "It looks like a design, therefore God did it." He needs to show why the forces of natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift are insufficient explanations for the existence of biological structures that look designed.

    • 42Oolon

      Or, "things that have functions must have a designer" As if a waterfall that functions as a shower must have been designed as a shower and this is evidence of an intelligent designer. Just because physical non-mind forces sufficiently explain why this stream drops water for 10 feet, if doesn't explain the obvious function of the waterfall as a shower for humans. Good grief.

      • Lionel Nunez

        Reductio Ad Absurdum

      • Kevin Aldrich

        There is quite a chasm between the stick produced by natural forces that looks like a gun to a kid and the bombardier beetle which can produce and eject a noxious and even fatal chemical mist powered by steam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombardier_beetle). The former was not designed to look like a gun but the latter has incredible design however it arose.

        • Octavo

          "design however it arose."

          If it's design even if it arose without being designed, then the word "design" loses a lot of meaning.

          A better term might be complex configuration. If a complex configuration was actually intentionally made by a thinking agent, then design would be the appropriate term.

        • nych

          If it arose WITHOUT DESIGN(Spoiler: it DID) then it by definition DOES NOT have incredible design, it has no design at all, but is purely the end result of a VERY fortunate series of random events from the view of the bug's survival. Sigh, seems like begging the question is every human's favorite fallacy. I hear it EVERY DAMN DAY.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            It has design because all the parts are ordered to a specific end. It squirts boiling water, not cola or Beethoven's 9th.

            There is something design-inducing in the very nature of things, since at the moment of the big bang (if that is how the universe began) there was the potential for complexity, order, and information to be generated.

    • geekborj

      No need. It should however be stressed that these forces (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, etc) are forces embedded (designed) into the system so that the systems ultimate purpose will be reached. Catholics believe (and all christians should) that God is in every good operations of this Universe. Christians believe that God is the fount of all good things in the Universe. In the creation account, everything were originally made good (hence, attains their proper ends efficiently) UNTIL the Original Sin. Thus, bad mutations and other inordinate events resulted from that event of disobedience from the Maker.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        None of those three are forces. They're emergent properties of the principle that traits are partially encoded as genes.

        The second problem with this analysis is that the entire process depends on the existence of variance and error. The fact that mutations develop is fundamental to the chemistry of DNA and RNA, and their replication and repair mechanisms. All three of which can be extrapolated back to the earliest life forms on our planet.

        The prospects for an pre-human Eden absent the variance and error necessary for evolution to work strike me as pretty slim.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          They were called "forces" by biologists suffering from physics envy, when the success of the hard sciences inspired others to impose its methodology on softer objects.

          "Emergent properties" is basically an appeal to magic, unless within the context of Aristotelian metaphysics. In that case, it is an appeal to formal causes.

          The mutations and copying errors in the genetic code comprise the material cause of evolution; that is, the "matter" upon which natural selection works.

          Natural selection is, of course, the efficient cause.

          • geekborj

            I like this idea. Forces are efficient causes. Matter is material cause.

            Emergent properties (EP) are properties which i think only an intellect can "see". Thus, we can see the "form" of things. EP being formal causes may be a good interpretation consistent with Thomasian school.

            PS. How do I make italicized words?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The four aitia are best understood as four "because" answers to "make" questions.

            Material cause: what is X made of?
            Formal cause: what makes it an X?
            Efficient cause: what makes X?
            Final cause: What is X made for?

            There is a discussion of matter and form here:


            There is a discussion of natural telos here:


            To make italics: bound the text by (i) and (/i) where the parentheses are replaced by the sign, resp.

          • geekborj

            Very helpful! Thanks!

      • Octavo

        There's no indication that they are forces designed into a system.

        "God is in every good operations of this Universe."

        If that's your starting point, then no matter what scientists discover, you'll attribute it to a central designer.

        • geekborj

          But there is nothing wrong with that as anyone else would attribute the same phenomena to randomness or chance. These are presumptions that within the natural sciences, cannot be concluded with certainty as natural science is incomplete.

          • Octavo

            Modern biologists think that biological phenomena work via natural processes, because when they observe nature, they see natural processes. There are more to natural processes than randomness and chance.

            There is a problem with assuming that biological processes are the result of a central designer, when there is no evidence of such a designer having existed, and there is no known biological phenomenon that requires a cosmic designer.

            Intelligent design is a solution in search of a problem.

          • geekborj

            1. Agree. What is more to natural processes can only be "seen" via the human intellect.
            2. Looking for physical evidence of a "spiritual being" is absurd. However, the intellect via philosophy can be used to reach the conclusion of a Supreme Being as the Ultimate and Final Cause even if the nature cannot be ascertained by our intellect.
            3. Intelligent design as a solution to the problem of explaning everything in nature is a tautology. Either [1] one start with "intellectual observations" (science) and conclude intelligent design of Nature; OR [2] start with intelligible Nature (with order, rational) and conclude that science is possible. I'm siding with the Option [2].

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          I think some folks are confusing 'evolution' with 'creation' and 'design' with a draftsman at a drawing board. But I might have designs on a piece of chocolate cake... "Creation should be thought of, not according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner that thought is creative. And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation..." (Benedict XVI)

          But it is true that Thomas Aquinas based his Fifth Way on the lawfulness of the common course of nature, and would have regarded Darwin's theories (to the extent that they are scientific laws of nature) as simply further evidence of God. The only time he touched on the origin of species, he wrote:

          "Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning." -- Summa theologica, I.73.1.adv.3
          IOW, he expected that the origin of species would be produced by the natural causes that God had embedded in creation. Replace "active powers" with "natural laws","putrefaction" with "mutation" and the "power of the stars and elements" with "physical and chemical powers" and see how it sounds.

          • geekborj

            Perfect! I have always liked Thomas Acquinas. He would be delighted reading scientific articles of today!

          • Mary B Moritz

            Read thus part of Summa theologiae recently but did not get this! I was caught by the fact that "spontaneous generation" cannot occur, as everybody knows nowadays, but not in Aquinas' time! Excellent....thanks so much

          • Steve Willy

            It seems that Aqhinas' observation punches Darwin-worshipping material-reductionism in the balls and leaves it curled up on the ground in a fetal position gasping for the air that it tacitly knows it doesn't deserve but that it selfishly sucks down anyway to satisfy its solipsistic hedonism.

          • Rick DeLano

            My. That is quite well put.

          • nych

            Sigh, some people's kids...

      • David Nickol

        Thus, bad mutations and other inordinate events resulted from that event of disobedience from the Maker.

        Are you saying there were only "good" mutations before the first humans walked the earth? Certainly there were predators well before human beings (perhaps most famously, Tyrannosaurus rex). So nature was "red in tooth and claw" before humans ever existed. The vast majority of life forms that have ever existed on earth (90%) are now extinct. If good mutations secure the survival of species, and bad ones allow for the extinction of species, then there were a lot of bad mutations before humans existed. There were also diseases long before humans existed. Cancer has been discovered in dinosaurs. Viruses infected insects 300 million years ago. There is absolutely no reason to suspect that the natural world was different before the first humans than after.

        • geekborj

          Of course, but I think (not official teaching) sin can also have repercussion in the past events, just as the redemptive event of Easter is applied to the OT persons and events. It's like a painter or story-writer already knows how the strokes / events will unfold in the space-time canvass / storyworld.

    • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

      Hey Jesse - I would be careful to distinguish between "run of the mill creationist arguments" (which I'm also wary of) and the argument that nature is inherently teleological, and not simply the product of laws of physics and chemistry. Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher I cite here frequently, argues in his new book "Mind & Cosmos" for a "natural teleology" that has nothing to do with a Creator. He admits that it's unlikely to be taken seriously in the present intellectual climate (he was right - his sober book was widely maligned), and that it "flies in the teeth of the authoritative form of explanation that has defined science since the revolution of the seventeenth century." Still, he argues that "teleology is a naturalistic alternative that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law." In the last section, Verschuuren seems to depart from a naturalistic teleology, but in the last paragraph reaffirms the difference (the "that" and the "why" things are the way they are). In short, teleology doesn't necessitate the "Creator-as-explanation."

      • Octavo

        In this article at least, he hasn't made any arguments that the Discovery Institute hasn't made. They all cite Paley and they all act as though biological structures are the result of teleology or intentional design.

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          It's unfortunate that Verschuuren ends with the phrase "Intelligent Designer," because he didn't seem to be at all advocating for ID theory in the article, an implication that I knew would derail the discussion here in the comments.

          I did a quick search through his book "God and Evolution" and came up with the following quote:

          ID theory does injustice to faith, for faith takes the universe as a whole that is created by God our Creator. ID theory, however, turns this perfect whole into a defective whole that is not causally complete in itself, but requires additional causes to fill the voids God supposedly left behind. ID fans tout intelligent design as a scientific concept, although it is a metaphysical presupposition, not a physical, causal explanation...In addition, ID theory does injustice to reason and rationality because it anticipates that science cannot do its job without taking refuge in unscientific principles...

          I think you'll find that this type of brazen repudiation of ID theory is common among Catholics, who from the beginning have had an immense respect for the autonomy of reason and science. Making any metaphysical discussion about teleology synonymous with "that tired old un-scientific program of Intelligent Design" is an unfair leap - but maybe Verschuuren could have done more here to avoid the association.

          • Octavo

            I'm glad he's not affiliated with the Discovery Institute.

            Why do you think his arguments about teleology have any merit? It sounds to me like he's trying to say any possible biological or chemical configuration is a design. This argument doesn't seem to do very much for someone who isn't already committed to the idea of a God.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Me too! Although, I don't think we should dismiss the ID folks a priori, but hear them out and see if we can't refute their arguments point by point.

            I think the notion of teleology expressed here has merit for the same reason Nagel does. The alternative, neo-Darwinian materialism (a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one), does a far worse job of giving a historical (the how) and constitutive (the what) account of life, consciousness, cognition, and value. Nagel is an atheist and an analytic philosopher, not a theist and a polemical apologist. In seeking only truth, Nagel finds that a natural teleology explains a bigger slice of reality and makes fewer grandiose assumptions.

            Regarding the OP, I think you're getting hung up on the word "design." I would too if I were an atheist - besides, he uses the word no less than 34 times here! But I think if you re-read the article replacing that word with a synonym not so redolent of religious assent and the unfortunate ID movement - say, "function" or an Aristotelian "aim" or "final cause" - that will help make the article more accessible as mostly an articulation of biology's relationship with teleology, and not theology.

            From the SEP: "Many contemporary biologists and philosophers of biology believe that teleological notions are a distinctive and ineliminable feature of biological explanations but that it is possible to provide a naturalistic account of their role that avoids the concerns above. Terminological issues sometimes serve to obscure some widely-accepted distinctions."

          • josh

            Function is very different from aim or final cause. A tree branch may function as a walking stick, that does not mean it is caused by the aim of or use as an aid to ambulation.

            Really baffled that you could even write that teleology, which has zero successes to its name, gives a better account of the history of life than the actual science which applies to that history. So far the score is about 1-billion for the neo-Darwinian synthesis vs. wishful thinking for anything else. Is this a case of the Gambler's fallacy?

          • Fred

            You're confusing two levels of teleology. The tree branch functioning as a walking stick has extrinsic teleology, i.e., teleology imposed on it by something else, in this case a human consciousness. It functions as a walking stick _for_ the person who uses it as such. The tree branch functioning _as_ a tree branch has intrinsic teleology, i.e., it is functioning to achieve the intrinsic end of a tree branch, to help the tree grow and flourish.

          • josh

            No, I'm pointing out that you (among others) are forcing the human tendency to think of things being for a purpose onto the wider world when it is incoherent and unjustified to do so. In the example above, the branch is not doing anything for the tree, it fell off and has become my walking stick. But then there is no reason to assert that it is intrinsically for one thing or another. We can understand the role a typical branch plays in the life of a tree, and from that we can understand the evolutionary history that leads modern trees to produce branches, but that doesn't indicate teleology. The branch is exactly what it is. It isn't trying to be a perfect branch or a walking stick. The former is a 'use' the tree makes and the latter is one I make of it.

          • geekborj

            Then that branch of the tree has become the "material cause" of the walking stick whose "ultimate/final end" or "purpose" is to be used as walking stick.

            Some examples may contain more general cases of final end or ultimate purpose. Our posting here for example has a final end of trying to understand each other's position, not to convince. In the end, it will be each others intellect and will which will decide which to believe to be true or not.

          • Fred

            "It isn't trying to be a perfect branch or a walking stick. The former is a 'use' the tree makes and the latter is one I make of it."

            "We can understand the role a typical branch plays in the life of a tree, and from that we can understand the evolutionary history that leads modern trees to produce branches"

            The very words 'use', 'role', and 'leads' imply teleology. Just try to describe a biological function or natural _selection_ (a teleological word if ever there was one) without using language that at some point implies teleology. You can't. You can put the language in scare quotes or claim you're using teleological language in a non-teleological way but that doesn't in the least change its inescapability. Now, you could argue that that is just a limitation of language. I would agree that it is a limitation of language but I maintain that in this case the language is limited by the reality it is expressing.

          • josh

            "The very words 'use', 'role', and 'leads' imply teleology."
            Not in the least. Notice that I put 'use' in single quotes to indicate that I was analogizing it with the human case for your benefit but it isn't actually the best description. 'Role' in this case just means how something behaves in a certain context, similarly with 'leads'. One really shouldn't try to extrapolate metaphysics from common language.

            Here is natural selection: A population of interbreeding organisms has a spread of genetic differences, resulting in phenotypic differences. In a given environment, some phenotypes will be more likely to survive than others. (Also some will be more likely to breed, etc. but let's stick with survival for simplicity.) Those that survive are more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation. Over time, the genes of the more-likely-to-survive phenotypes will come to have greater frequency in the population than those of the less-fit phenotypes. New genetic variations and hence new phenotypes can be introduced over time by mutations, etc. In sum, over time the frequencies of different genes will change in a population, with some eventually disappearing and new ones coming to ubiquity. Consequently, the typical phenotype of the population will change over time.

            The above isn't just me artificially stripping out teleological language, it is the actually technically correct description of what is going on (more or less, a biologist might point out a few improvements). If you don't understand the above you don't really know what is going on with evolution.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Technically, a tree branch is not a "thing," but part of a thing. Whatever telos a branch has must be in a relationship to tree. It becomes a walking stick only by artifice, and in that case it is the end the artificer has in mind that matters.

            When science was redefined as a servant of business and industry -- that is, as a provider of useful and successful products -- it was natural to focus on metrical and controllable efficient causes. But absent a telos, these efficient causes will have no consistent effect. That is why modern natural science employs finality while denying finality.

          • Fred

            "That is why modern natural science employs finality while denying finality."

            That is exactly the point I was making above, that and the further point that its employment of finality is reflected in the very language it uses for description.

          • geekborj

            The example of a tree branch becoming a walking stick is not a good example of "function" as "final cause". Here, the tree branch became the "material cause" of the walking stick. Perhaps the final cause of tree branches is to provide material cause for other purposes. Perhaps the final cause of the Universe is to support human life.

            We are not trying to win arguments here but share points of view. I believe that joining discussions here help me learn about many things including those points of view that I do not ascribe to so I will understand where their arguments are coming from. No need to update us with scores.

          • Mary B Moritz

            Thanks for clarifying!!
            Still I don't think this argument of teleology is very clear - the Aristotelian/Thomististic concept serves better to the cause...

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          Paley bought into the same concept of dead matter as Newton, Dawkins, and Behe.

      • josh

        Sober and well-reasoned are different things. Nagel's book was panned for not being a very good argument. For the purposes of this discussion, the important point is that a vague notion of teleology doesn't solve any of the problems Nagel thinks he sees in understanding consciousness.

        • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

          Hey Josh - I'm curious, did you read the book? If so could you point out the "fatal flaws" by page number, or do so by proxy through the harsh reviews? I found it incredibly careful, well-reasoned, and compelling (in a word, analytic), and haven't seen much in the way of refutation, but plenty of deep sighs and eye-rolling because of prior philosophical commitments. Sounds like the other great turning points in history, no?

          Keep in mind that Nagel isn't dogmatic about his naturalistic teleology, or saying that it's without obscurity or problems. Mind & Cosmos, in large part, simply shows that whatever obscurity and problems teleology brings with is outmatched by the obscurity and problems of reductive materialism when attempting to give an account of phenomena like life, consciousness, cognition, and value, i.e., of the universe as we encounter it daily as human beings.

          • josh

            I've only read several reviews. They don't serve to recommend the book to me. It sounds like Nagel is just restating a position he's held for a while, and tying it to other tired ideas like teleology. That's nothing like a turning point in history, that's an old dog barking out the only trick he knows. Moreover, it requires one to ignore the ongoing, exciting progress that science is making in neurology, psychology, etc.

            Nagel may not understand it, but 'reductive materialism' remains singularly fruitful and he hasn't actually managed to state a problem with it. Just a feeling that he won't ever be satisfied. Somehow, science will persevere I think. Like I said though, it's one thing for Nagel to say that he doesn't understand consciousness, or to try and argue that there are deep problems with it. I'd disagree with the latter, but that's not the point here. The point is teleology can't solve any of those problems as he posits them. So whether or not some phenomena are mysterious, you can't rationally argue to chuck an amazingly successful paradigm in favor of one that gains you nothing.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            I do wonder whether anyone has actually read the book, or came to it so anxious to agree or so anxious to disagree that every page was ipso facto dazzling or maddening.

            But it's clear you misunderstand (or at least mischaracterize) Nagel and his argument. Your assessment reminds me of Jerry Coyne's assessment, who makes it abundantly clear that he did not read the book:

            Nagel is a teleologist, and although not an explicit creationist, his views are pretty much anti-science and not worth highlighting. However, that's The Chronicle's decision: If they want an article on astrology (which is the equivalent of what Nagel is saying), well, fine and good...

            Wow. That comes from an article which - although critical of Nagel in many respects - is careful to properly summarize his work, its context, and its implications for science, rather than betray a hysterical dogmatism that muzzles inquiry and debate:

          • Octavo

            "Hey Josh - I'm curious, did you read the book? If so could you point out the "fatal flaws" by page number, or do so by proxy through the harsh reviews? "

            Some of us are at work or are nowhere near a library. If this article did not represent the meat of the argument, what do you think is a good formulation of his most convincing points?

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Jesse - Here are two great articles looking at Nagel's book and the question of teleology. Both articles are more critical of "Mind & Cosmos" than sympathetic, but they deal squarely and reasonably with its implications for science:



          • Octavo

            Thanks for the articles. It seems that he is saying that consciousness will always evolve from constituent elements because evolution has a specific direction toward complexity.

            This reminds me of some of Carl Sagan's musings during the cold war, when it seemed that the minds that created advanced technology, such as nuclear bombs, may yet be selected against. Perhaps the heavens seem so empty of life because intelligent life always ends up destroying itself.

            Hard to say one way or another, but even on earth, advanced cognition like ours has yet to be matched by other life forms.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            You'll get no quarrel from me there. The human species is increasingly capable of destroying itself (and the world around it), and cleverness is no guarantor of its peace.

            One of my favorite comics, Calvin and Hobbes, said it best: "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

          • josh

            Could you point to something I misunderstand about Nagel's argument? So far, Nagel's work has no implications for science and is being quickly forgotten. Nobody is muzzling him, they are pointing out that he doesn't have anything interesting to say.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Well, you wrote that "science will persevere" regardless of Nagel's "feeling," and just now that his work has "no implications for science." Aren't you implying that the concept of teleology is a threat to (or at least irrelevant to) the scientific program?

            But this simply isn't true. In that Chronicle article I listed before, which is somewhat harsh on Nagel:

            There actually are scientists—respected ones, Nobel Prize-winning ones—who are saying exactly what Nagel said, and have been saying it for decades. Strangely enough, Nagel doesn't mention them. Neither have his critics...Perhaps the best known of these scientists is Stuart Kauffman, of the Santa Fe Institute, who argues that the universe gives us "order for free."

            Then, in another article - also harsh on Nagel:

            It’s a bold claim, but not in itself an unscientific one. Indeed, what Nagel’s critics rarely conceded was the fact that teleological talk remains rampant to this day in popular and even academic science writing.

            Finally, the SEP entry on teleology confirms that it is perfectly coherent to incorporate teleological notions into scientific explanations:

            Many contemporary biologists and philosophers of biology believe that teleological notions are a distinctive and ineliminable feature of biological explanations but that it is possible to provide a naturalistic account of their role...

            The consensus seems to be that dismissing the concept of teleology as brazenly anti-science won't wash.

          • josh

            I am indeed implying that teleology is irrelevant to the scientific program. I would say the consensus of science has been that we are doing just fine without teleology ever since the overthrow of Aristotle, a few contrarians won't change that. And the SEP can't really confirm anything, especially when it comes to the practice of science.

            But let's be clear, most of the 'support' for some idea of teleology cited in those articles is no such thing. It consists of: 1) We often talk in teleological terms. But this is not surprising since it is a common mode of human thought. From our earliest childhood we think of things in terms of what we can use them for, what they will do for us, what we want. But those terms are subjective to humanity and not indicative of any intrinsic teleology in the universe at large.

            2)Some people argue that certain outcomes are likely. E.g. that given the laws of physics and the vast number of planets it is extremely likely that life would have developed somewhere, or that given evolutionary mechanisms we should see an increase in a certain type of complexity, or the rise or intelligent creatures. These are all pretty speculative notions, but whether they are true or not they aren't actually teleological.

            Given some initial conditions and a determinative system, there is always in principle an outcome that the system will 'tend to' at a given time. Given a non-determinative system but a valid probabilistic treatment and thermodynamic numbers (i.e. huge numbers of particles) we can still say that some outcomes in terms of broad features are essentially inevitable. This is like noticing that a rock rolling down a hill will end up at the bottom, or that a canister of oxygen released in a corner of a vacuum pumped room will eventually spread out to fill the room. But neither of these cases shows that the purpose or rocks is to find the bottom of hills, or of air to fill a room.

            A non-teleological treatment tells you the same information and SO MUCH MORE. Because a non-teleological treatment in principle tells you HOW the system will move from one state to another at every point along the way, and it will tell you the conditions, if any, where the supposed end will not come to pass.

          • http://bywayofbeauty.com/ Matthew Becklo

            Josh - Thanks for your thoughtful response! You make a good point that a lot of the emphasis is on metaphorical or conversational use of teleological concepts. I'll concede that. (Although to be fair, both articles do list quite a few if not dozens of mainstream contemporary biologists and physicists who go beyond that and embrace teleology per se.) Verschuuren seems to want to put a similar emphasis on the "common sense" factor or "inescapibility" of teleological thinking. Of course it was perfectly sensible and inescapable that the sun rotated the earth once too. I'm sensitive to the fact that prima facie experience isn't always an adequate guide to understanding the natural order, and more qualified people than Nagel (he admits this) would have to make a more complete case for the appropriation of a teleological framework to current scientific knowledge.

            I tend to think the next major paradigm shift will be something nobody could have foreseen, as most shifts are, and that it will - as Nagel puts it - make the program of materialism seem "laughable" in two generations. Maybe you think that's laughable - but maybe God thinks we're both laughable!

          • geekborj

            Actually, teleological treatment tells more information than non-teleological. Why? Because teleology is NOT AGAINST telling how a system moves from one state to another. In fact, teleology is the principle used to explain the series of cause and effect resulting to the "movement" of state from one to another. A net force is the cause of the change of momentum. Gravity is the cause of "falling objects" and "orbits of planets". Dark energy is the cause of the unexplained expansive force. Dark matter is the cause of the unexplained missing mass of the Universe.

            What you have just explained is exactly teleology.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            teleology is irrelevant to the scientific program.

            Possibly in the same manner that evolution is irrelevant to auto mechanics. However, scientists must assume telos implicitly, else there would be no regularities in nature, no natural laws.

            I would say the
            consensus of science has been that we are doing just fine without
            teleology ever since the overthrow of Aristotle,

            It wasn't overthrown, it was simply denied. Not the same thing. I am sure scientists (who may have a consensus; 'science' does not) may consensus on a great many issues on which they have no expertise.

          • josh

            Evolution does not have to be true for auto mechanics to work. If you are just identifying telos with regularities in nature (which aren't assumed but searched for), then it is just a superfluity. After all, how could telos cause regularities in nature without there being the regularity that a particular telos gives rise to a particular regularity.

            Aristotle was overthrown. We don't talk in Aristotelian terms, we don't assume his inadequate metaphysics, we don't try and fit things to his outdated physics (and cosmology, and biology, etc.) What is clear is that he was no expert on the things non-experts like yourself wish to lecture us on.

          • Fred

            In other words, you can't meet Matthew's challenge.

          • josh


  • picklefactory

    Somehow our universe has been designed in such a way that specific designs do work, whether it is for better or for worse.

    I detect an unwarranted assumption somewhere in here.

    • geekborj

      In any case one would go, there will always be an assumption. What the author tries to say here IMHO is that that "unwarranted assumption" seems to be consistently validated by our observations (human history, science and art). Any random assumption will always end to an ordered randomness which in the final analysis still a kind of order and design in this Universe.

      In the end, it is whether one would acknowledge the supernatural cause of things natural. Either way, both must believe that there are material and efficient causes of things (physical sciences). What catholics ADDITIONALLY believe is that there is a primary formal and final causes and that these are one and the same --- God. God, being infinite in power, cannot envy anyone whom He chose to give some of his creative powers. He gave the Universe the ability to procreate by designing the laws the govern it.

      Natural Philosophy should not be ashamed of ending up with the need of explaining the Ultimate Origin of all the laws of nature. For catholics, it's already revealed to be God. For catholics, it's easier because the boundary conditions are well defined.

      • picklefactory

        that "unwarranted assumption" seems to be consistently validated by our observations (human history, science and art).

        I disagree. It doesn't seem to me that anything in human history or science validates the assumption that biological organisms or the nature of the physical universe were designed.

        Any random assumption will always end to an ordered randomness which in the final analysis still a kind of order and design in this Universe.

        I don't understand this sentence.

        In the end, it is whether one would acknowledge the supernatural cause of things natural.

        I'm not inclined to; as far as I can tell there's still no evidence for supernatural causes.

        What catholics ADDITIONALLY believe is that there is a primary formal and final causes and that these are one and the same --- God.

        Oh, so it's the argument from first cause?

        He gave the Universe the ability to procreate by designing the laws the govern it.

        It's not clear to me what it would mean for the universe to procreate, as opposed to things happening in it due to the way that matter interacts.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          It doesn't seem to me that anything in human history or science validates the assumption that biological organisms or the nature of the physical universe were designed.

          If we go to the very nature of reality, to why the most elemental things behave the way they do, it's pretty remarkable that the way they are is such that they can give rise to incredible complexity, like the elements, molecules, chemistry, biology, and abstract thought.

          As far as I know, no one knows why those elemental things are that way. I'd think design by a designer would be a good candidate. That's not a proof but the other alternative is "that's just the way they happen to be."

          • Octavo

            I think one important thing to remember is that we've found no indication that a designer ever existed. All of the elements that exist on earth come from stars, and it is indeed remarkable that the elements combine in such diverse ways and give rise to even abstract thought.

            Now, if we went to the moons of Mars, for instance, and found an incredibly advanced laboratory filled with the plans that were used to create all life on earth, then I'd pay attention to people who think that all life was designed. At this point, we're going on the information that we have, which is that no designer was needed - just natural processes like genetic drift and natural selection.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I don't think that scenario would explain anything, because we'd have to ask how those designers got designed!

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I think one important thing to remember is that we've found no indication that a designer ever existed. All of the elements that exist on earth come from stars

            I think one important thing to remember is that we've found no
            indication that Beethoven ever existed. All of the notes that exist in the Moonlight Sonata come from vibrating strings.

          • Octavo

            I don't know why you'd think that I would think that historians can't establish that Beethoven was a historical figure whose existence was extremely likely. I don't think you're making a valid comparison.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Scientific analysis of the music cannot. You have to appeal to something outside the efficient causes of the musical sounds; that is, to different kinds of evidence than the physics of vibrating strings. In particular, to final causes like Beethoven's intentions. Remember, the original contention was that "we've found no indication that a designer ever existed" by examining the thing designed. Nor can we identify Frank Whittle by measuring and testing the components of a jet engine.

          • Octavo

            "Remember, the original contention was that "we've found no indication
            that a designer ever existed" by examining the thing designed."

            You misunderstood me and appended "by examining the thing designed" to my statement. When I said that there is no indication of the existence of a designer, I was thinking more along the lines of the Monolith from 2001: a Space Odyssey, or to quote my original comment: "an incredibly advanced laboratory filled with the plans that were used to create all life on earth".

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I was thinking more along the lines of the Monolith from 2001

            Right. IOW, you were looking for evidence of a designer within the thing designed. (And more to the point, interpreting "design" in terms of engineering rather than in terms of plans or intentions.) That's like looking for evidence of Shakespeare by demanding he appear in the Dramatis personae of Macbeth.

            The problem is that the "Monolith" is there: an entire universe whose internal workings are self-consistent, compatible, rationally ordered and at least in large measure accessible to human reason. Next to that, a slab is nothing. But this will be dismissed as merely "the appearance of design." In similar wise, we are told of "the appearance of free will" or even "the appearance of intention" or "the appearance of consciousness." And so post-modern "science" inches closer and closer to the notion of the world as an illusion, pulling out the foundation blocks of science in the abject fear that You Know Who is lurking underneath.

          • Octavo

            "That's like looking for evidence of Shakespeare by demanding he appear in the Dramatis personae of Macbeth."

            An odd comparison. If you're Catholic, don't you believe in dramatic appearances of angelic messengers and incarnations of the great designer?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            An author can surely insert himself into a text. But it is not the common course of nature, and so is outside the scope of natural philosophy. In fact, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Islamic philosophers like ibn Rushd and ibn Sinna, and Jewish philosophers like Maimonides have found evidence of God within creation (so rational thought is not only a Catholic thing) but nothing so outre as a "fingerprint" or some "gap" that needed filling. Thomas Aquinas argued from the lawfulness of nature, not from any divine spit and baling wire required to patch over a creation that was somehow "not good" as designed.

          • geekborj

            Science would not be an interesting field if every conclusion is "that's just the way they happen to be." Having a Final End just makes science very exciting and eager to discover more!

            Of the two hypothesis:
            (1) There is a Final End to everything.
            (2) That's just the way they happen to be.
            I like (1) better because it compels me to search for the continuity of the cause and effect chain to the Final End. Or if backwards, the cause of every effect to the Ultimate Beginning.

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          It doesn't seem to me that anything in human history or science
          validates the assumption that biological organisms or the nature of the
          physical universe were designed.

          You mean "designed directly by an external agent acting contrary to his own design (plan/intentions)." Come to that, from a scientific standpoint, the Moonlight Sonata may be 'explained' by the physics of vibrating strings.

  • David Nickol

    I don't know why anyone who finds this line of argument persuasive doesn't just apply it to everything. For example, it could be argued that the reason atoms have electrons is to share or exchange with other atoms to make molecules. Electrons have a purpose. These arguments aren't persuasive to anyone except the people who already (at least implicitly) believe in them.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      It could be argued that the reason atoms have electrons is to share or exchange with other atoms to make molecules.

      Can't we say "atoms have electrons they can share or exchange with other atoms to make molecules"? They have that quality. Then, isn't a very interesting question, why are they this way?

  • 42Oolon

    This is the argument for design by REDUCIBLE complexity.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Somehow our universe has been designed in such a way that specific
    designs do work, whether it is for better or for worse. It is only due
    to this metaphysical notion of design and teleology that we can talk
    about biological designs; all biological designs are “design-based”
    designs. It is one of the most perplexing things about our universe that
    it allows for any kind of design to work the way it works.

    Does anyone know what Verschuuren is saying here? I cannot comprehend his argument.

    • David Nickol

      Does anyone know what Verschuuren is saying here? I cannot comprehend his argument.

      I suppose he is making an argument one step beyond, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That would be, "Why, in the something that does exist, is there order rather than complete chaos? Why are there 'physical laws'? Why is the universe comprehensible?" As I said, I am not sure why people who raise this question don't raise it at a more fundamental level than regarding the theory of evolution or the existence of consciousness. The "purpose" of the electromagnetic force is to keep electrons from flying out of the electron shells of all the atoms. Clearly electrons were "designed" with a purpose, according to this way of thinking, otherwise there would be no such thing as chemistry.

      If you can slip in the concept of "design" into any description of the physical world, you can then argue there must be a designer.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Isn't it obvious that the most fundamental things we know about have a "design," in the sense of "a definite nature so they behave as they do and have the potentialities they do"?

        We don't know why they are this way but we know they are. Verschuuren seems "leap" to God to explain the "why" but I don't see any chain of reasoning.

  • Octavo

    Somehow, I thought this article would have more comments. Did most of the regular debaters leave (or get banned)?

    • picklefactory

      Multiple choice:

      a) The old debaters left or got banned (this seems to have happened a few days before I noticed this site)
      b) Nobody feels like engaging with the same old, tired argument from design
      c) Nobody can tell if it *is* the old, tired argument from design because it's bordering on incomprehensible

    • David Nickol

      Did most of the regular debaters leave (or get banned)?

      I suppose several of those who would have challenged this post most vigorously are among those who left, but I can only imagine had they stayed they would by now have grown tired of answering the same arguments over and over again in slightly different forms. I don't think they found the site intellectually challenging, but rather enjoyed (from their point, whether or not objectively) shooting fish in a barrel. I suspect that wears thin rather quickly, which may explain why they apparently found it easy to walk away.

    • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer


    • Randy Gritter

      As a Catholic I don't find this particular argument easy to defend. Maybe I just don't understand it. He suggest a philosophical problem one might have if one holds to atheism and believes in evolution. I have seen Plantinga and other argue that from a point of view of evolution not being able to explain why we should trust our reason. He does not go there. He needs to find a line of argument that atheists will find hard to answer. I don't think he has done that.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    If the eye lens, for example, did not function like a physical lens, one would not see very well.

    1. The lens of the eye doesn't function like a physical lens, it is a physical lens. (More precisely, a lens that works via refraction.)

    2. The bewildering diversity of eyes in nature in terms of complexity, precision, visual range, and developmental origins, provides multiple cases of eyes being just good enough for an organism to get by within its ecological niche.

    3. Of course, once molecular biology cracked open the black box of organism genetics, we find that organisms not only are just good enough for their niche, many of them carry the baggage of prior niches along with them.

    • Zaoldyeck

      "The bewildering diversity of eyes in nature in terms of complexity,
      precision, visual range, and developmental origins, provides multiple
      cases of eyes being just good enough for an organism to get by within
      its ecological niche."

      It's sad that a discussion on the 'design' of biological life fulfilling 'purposes' has no discussion on niches. At all. He was happy to say words that imply design to support his strange philosophical point... but ignored all the actual biological mechanisms that adds the non-divine intent.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Could people start using their real names, as per the site's commenting rules?

    • Octavo

      Since I live in Texas, I'd really like to prevent my employer or potential employers to easily find out that I'm a non-theist, so I don't want to change my username. I don't mind putting that info in a comment though. I'm Jesse Webster.

  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    If teleology is a metaphysical position, why can't I take a metaphysics that includes no teleology, and do science that way?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      You don't need any metaphysics to do science. Science ignores metaphysics because it is irrelevant to it.

      • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

        I think my metaphysics helps me do science, but you are right, it's not strictly necessary. it's never appeared in any of the papers I've published.

      • David Nickol

        Well, you don't have to study metaphysics to do science. But certainly scientists have metaphysical assumptions that they take for granted, even if they would be bewildered if you asked them what those metaphysical assumptions were.

        My father was a chemist, and not much of a metaphysician, but one day when he came home from work, I had created somewhat of a mess melting vinyl records in the oven. He said, "What is that?" And I said, "It's an experiment that failed." He said, "Experiments don't fail." I think that's metaphysics.

        The following has nothing to do with metaphysics, but he also said, "If you speak up to the powers that be about what everyone is complaining about in private, don't expect the people who are complaining in private to back you up!" This was very wise. Of course, himself over 40 at the time, he also said, "Anybody over 40 is over the hill, and not worth a hill of beans." (This was a propos of nominees to, and members of, the Supreme Court, but he wouldn't have limited it to that.)

      • Mary B Moritz

        I agree, as long as you do your science right and do not got outside the limit of science. Science should stick to the "methodological naturalism".

  • DannyGetchell

    I don't see any problem with positing that life has been designed, provided that (1) a plausible explanation for the mechanics of this design is given and (2) it's understood that the designer took several hundred million years, with many false starts and changes of plan along the way.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      The atheist argument is that natural science implies there is no designer, unless one loosely calls the impersonal, blind forces of nature a designer.

      Thus, from the atheist perspective, there were not any false starts or changes of plan; rather this happened, then that happened, then another thing happened, according to the "mechanics" of the universe.

      • DannyGetchell

        I personally come from a deist perspective. It's perfectly credible to me that the universe had an origin, and that origin may have a quality that we call "intelligence".

        The history of life on Earth since that time seems to me to be evidence of either random events, or of a disinterested "tinkerer".

        • Randy Gritter

          What about the human tendency towards worship? Did this disinterested intelligence give us such a thing. Why? It seem it would suit that kind of god more if we were just like cats and rats and elephants and just went about our business with no concern for something bigger.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Why do you think God would "tinker" with life on earth if he had no interest in it?

          • DannyGetchell

            I might tinker with an ant farm, out of an interest in seeing whether the ants would thrive or fail under differing conditions.

            In the same way, a creator might be entertained by trying a prehensile tail here, a marsupial pouch there, just to see how they work out.

            I don't have any emotional investment in the ants nor do I desire to communicate with them. Ditto the creator.

  • Peter Piper

    The theory of Evolution serves (amongst other things) to answer a genuine question: the organs of creatures often require a complex structure to fulfil their functions, but how can the presence of this complex structure be explained?

    The OP here suggests that there is an analogous problem with the fact that the world is such that it can contain complex structures which fulfil functions. But in order for there to be an analogous problem, there would need to be an analogous complexity in the way in which this possibility is present in the world. The OP makes no case for the presence of such complexity, and so fails to make a compelling argument.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I've reread your second paragraph a number of times and I have no idea what you are saying.

      • Peter Piper

        I can sympathise with your position here. I felt the same after reading paragraphs like this in the OP:
        Somehow our universe has been designed in such a way that specific designs do work, whether it is for better or for worse. It is only due to this metaphysical notion of design and teleology that we can talk about biological designs; all biological designs are “design-based” designs. It is one of the most perplexing things about our universe that it allows for any kind of design to work the way it works.

        Nevertheless, I think that I have now understood what this paragraph is getting at, and my comment is directed against it. So my response to you depends on whether you consider yourself to have understood the paragraph I quote here. If so, please read what I said again with it in mind and then let me know if you still don't understand my comment (perfectly possible). If not, then you can either look at this part of the OP once again or else ignore the issue as technical and obscure (this would probably be a sound judgment).

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Verschuuren seems to be saying:

          > The universe is filled with complex phenomena which produce specific outcomes.
          > We can use our intelligence to grasp how these things are put together and how they work to produce what they produce.
          > We don't know why our universe is this way.

          You seem to be saying,

          > Evolution explains the complex phenomena which exist.
          > Verschuuren doesn't make a case for something he thinks is a problem.

          • Peter Piper

            Right. If Verschuuren's only point is that there is something that we don't understand, then this isn't enough to build an argument on. This claim, that although what Verschuuren says is philosophically obscure and thus confusing it does not support a meta-teleological argument for anything much, is what I was trying to get at in my confusing comment above.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Still, I think there is a real question there that seems beyond the competence of physical science and so is a philosophical or metaphysical question.

            The question is this:

            > What is the reason the universe is the way it is, that is, consisting of matter and energy of such a kind as over time to be able to be built up into totally unpredictable greater levels of complexity, namely atoms, molecules, chemicals, living organisms, living organisms with consciousness, and finally living organisms with rationality who can ask this question?

          • Peter Piper

            It isn't clear that this question makes sense, but I agree that if it does then it is a philosophical question. But `there exists at least one philosophical question' is such a universally accepted claim that I don't think we need a whole article arguing for it (nor do I think it is all Verschuuren wanted to argue for).

          • Peter Piper

            I'm having some problems with the software here (the site takes a while to load, comments take ages to appear, deleted comments don't disappear but instead become guest comments) but I hope you will still see this response:

            Even if you are right, the fact that there is at least one philosophical question is so uncontroversial a claim that there is no need for anyone to argue for it here, and I think Verschuuren was hoping to establish something stronger.

          • Peter Piper

            Right. If all Verschuuren is saying is that there is something we don't know then this isn't enough to build an argument on. This claim, that although what Verschuuren says is obscure and thus confusing it doesn't give a basis for a meta-teleological argument for anything much, was what I was trying to get at in my confusing comment above.

  • Zaoldyeck

    This article appears to mistake how niches form in nature. There was a large amount of time that trees lay dead on the ground for millions of years before life evolved with the ability to actually break them down. There was plenty of organic material ripe for the taking, but it took millions of years for any lifeforms to figure out how to tap into that. Yes, by a slow trial and error process, the same kind we replicated with the Lenski's citrate digesting E. coli.

    Nature itself designs its own problems, and own solutions. No god needed. There was no 'flying scavenger' niche in existence back when all animals were confined to water, but now it is such a successful niche in nature that multiple species of birds evolved with similar roles and features with radically different evolutionary (and even morphological) histories.

    You really do not need a god to understand how biological evolution works.

  • SaludoVencedores

    Maybe the Creator (thus design and purpose in creation) Vs. spontaneous-appearance-of-primitive-life,-followed-by-random-adjustments-to-gain-advantage argument won't be solved here. It's interesting to me that nobody here has yet played the "there-hasn't-been-enough-time-for-random-organization-of-life" card. It's, of course, true. (By several orders of magnitude.)
    But perhaps, for some insight, we should read how Darwin himself concluded his "Origin of Species":
    "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
    It was, perhaps, a master stroke of prescience on Darwin's part to anticipate Walcott's Burgess Shale fossil discoveries with his "into a few forms" line.

    • Zaoldyeck

      "It's interesting to me that nobody here has yet played the
      "there-hasn't-been-enough-time-for-random-organization-of-life" card.
      It's, of course, true. (By several orders of magnitude.)"

      This is the same old creationist "tornado creates an airplane" argument. It's not true, it misinterprets evolution by means of natural selection.

      Genetic drift may be random, but natural selection is most certainly not. When there is a niche to be filled, evolution provides a very effective, totally blind process to fill the niche rather quickly.

      There is nothing that mandates divine interference for a coherent history of the diversity of life under biological evolution. The "randomness can't do it" argument sounds a lot like why it's impossible for gravity to work. If I randomly toss a rock into the air, there's an infinitely small chance it will fall straight back down. There's a 50% chance it will go off up into the sky.

      It ignores the selection mechanism that adds a non-random element to the data.

      • SaludoVencedores

        Well, if it's old, make it go away. No less a "creationist" than physicist
        Steven Weinberg, has estimated that life in the universe represents an outcome whose probability is 1 in 10**120. In short, a fantasy, though realized.
        Maybe it's your "selection mecahnism". What creates that, prey tell?

        • Zaoldyeck

          "No less a "creationist" than physicist Steven Weinberg, has estimated that life in the universe represents an outcome whose probability is 1 in 10**120. In short, a fantasy, though realized."

          Those numbers are meaningless. Probability requires a discussion of variance. "How could the universe be different?"

          Now, Weinberg might be a fan of string theory and super-symmetry, but even he would have to concede that any and all of his models about the origin of the universe lack empirical verification, and that there is no robust quantum gravity theory in existence.

          Without those, we have no idea how the fundamental constants come about. We have no idea how matter dominated over antimatter, we don't know how cosmic inflation happened, etc etc. Talking about probability without an understanding of how things could have been different, possible variance, is silly and absurd.

          It is literally like saying that we expect 50% of objects tossed up to go out into space because 50% of the total paths from an object tossed up go up, while the other 50% go down, because you haven't figured out gravity exists yet.

          These probability arguments really are just arguments from ignorance, they use what we don't know to argue that the chances are too impossible for them to have happened naturally. Well unless Steven Weinberg has somehow managed to create his own universe simulators and how to fine tune physical constants to determine how this universe could have been different... his estimate as to how remote the possibility of life is doesn't mean much.

          We need a model of quantum gravity before we can address questions as to the nature of the universe. I prefer deferring my answers and admitting ignorance rather than pretending I know the answers just 'cause. (I'm looking at you, religious AND string theorists. Brian Greene doesn't get a free pass in my book either.)

          • SaludoVencedores

            "Those numbers are meaningless". Those darn pesky numbers. Before addressing their meaningfulness, another physicist, Dr. Michael Turner, University of Chicago/Fermilab, has likened the odds of “us” to the prospect of throwing a dart across the entire universe and hitting a 1 millimeter bull’s-eye on the other side.
            Both of these gentlemen are physicists. Their estimates of the probability of life developing anywhere in the universe are not based on anything other than the observed physics of the universe. For a backrounder on the issues I recommend Martin Rees' "Just Six Numbers".
            So no, these numbers are not meaningless. Could the strength of gravity be different than the value we observe? Yes, indeed. Could the strength of the weak nuclear force carry a different value than it does? Of course! More hydrogen? Less total mass? If not, why not? If you happen to have an explanation for why the values of these properties are the only permissible values, please explain.
            Now, of course, you could theorize there are an infinite number of universes, so things happen to be the way they are in ours because they have to be -- somewhere. But that isn't a testable hypothesis, and so constitutes pure speculation (though mathematically elaborate speculation), designed precisely to obviate the need to deal rationally with the rarity of the physical system in which we find ourselves housed.
            Do those offering these estimates of probability have conclusive answers as to how, exactly, our universe developed? No. Nor will they. We'll know more, eventually, but not all. (That Planck boundary thing is a real problem.) But their ignorance of all the details fails to affect their life-probability estimates. These are based on what is empirically observed, not how it got there.

          • Zaoldyeck

            You really don't seem to understand how science works.

            Quoting named physicists making off hand remarks about remarkable fine-tuning of the universe is quite different from an actual understanding of the underlying mechanics.

            You say "could the strength of the weak nuclear force carry a different value than it does? Of course!"

            As though it's such a trivial casual statement to make.

            But lets examine the question. I don't mind saying "ok, could it be different", but that's an impossible question to answer with statistics.

            As I said, statistics concerns measurements of variation.

            So I ask you "how different?" Well, then you could say "it could be anything", but when we start playing the "universe could have been infinitely different" then everything is equally infinitely improbable.

            So instead, we must set constraints.

            "Could the earth have been a different size?"

            You might say "well, yes, it could have been anything, the earth could have been 10 times larger than the sun!"

            But that ignores the underlying mechanism which sets constraints on the variability of size, specifically, gravity. If the earth was the size of the sun, it would be far, FAR more massive than the sun, and would collapse in on its own gravitational mass. The while typically strong molecular bonds would be powerless to provide enough pressure to retain structure with an earth that massive.

            Thus, the earth, as far as physics is concerned, could not be arbitrarily large.

            You say "could there have been less total mass in the universe, or more"?

            The answer, yes, of course there could have been, but how much more? How much less? What is the likelihood of each mass amount?

            Those are questions which require knowledge of the underlying nature of the universe. Those require answers to puzzles like quantum gravity, answers which no physicist, no matter any offhand comment he or she may make about fine-tuning, possesses.

            Physicists will fully admit that. Physicists make constant reminders that "we don't have a model of quantum gravity", the Michio Kaku's and Brian Greene's aside. (Although even they would certainly concede there is not a shred of empirical support for their mathematics)

            You seem to expect the answers without wanting to study the mechanisms.

            Appeals to authority really are quite ineffective as far as physics is concerned. Hell, if any of those physicists you mentioned actually, honestly and truly believes that they have a model for how fine-tuning of the universe could have been different, to actually quantify the statistics like that... I'd introduce them to Einstein pre-1928.

            Although I am relatively confident those comments do not imply any kind of actual statistical thought.

            If you actually care about the physics. If you care about more than off-hand remarks about what physcists have to say about naturalness and fine-tuning of the universe, here is an excellent talk done by Nima Arkani-Hamed.


            That is by no means the only dialogue out there and there are plenty of people who see SUSY as a dead-end, but that is how physicists actually talk about naturalness and fine-tuning. Off-hand remarks will never substitute be a substitute as far as I'm concerned.

          • Steve Willy

            Thanks for this steaming pile of pseudo-intellectual Hitchens-Dawkins parroting blather.

      • Steve Willy

        On a purely materialistic world view, in order for nature to “select” a trait, the trait has to arise in the first instance by RANDOM mutation. If a fish never has the gift of randomly mutated fins that allow it to crawl out of the pond, nature cannot “select” that trait and eventually give rise to amphibians. If the fish is randomly given, say, a penis when it really needs leg-like fins, no advantage, no evolution.
        This is apart from the fact that an overwhelming majority of mutations are harmful, many of those that are not harmful are neutral, and many of those that are helpful just don’t pass along to the next generation because of recessive genes, or because the amphibi-fish might have simply starved to death upon crawling out of the ooze, before having a chance to mate. In short, the odds of ANY beneficial mutations occurring AND being passed down is astronimically small. So your position that this was the sole mechanism for turning amino acids into Hawkins is a tough one defend.
        Also the “selection” of what random mutations are helpful for survival depends largely upon what conditions RANDOMLY happpen to prevail in a particular time and place. If the Earth hadn’t cooled significantly about 65 million years ago, nature would still select giant lizards over small mamals. While you seem to think the “environment” is something like the Force in Star Wars, intelligently picking and chosing what survives for the purpose of creating more complicated forms, this ignores the randomness of near earth collisions, fluctuations in solar output, ocean currents, etc. Let’s say I’m the first of Darwin’s mutated fish that you have on your bumper. I finally hit the random mutation lottery and sprout feet, but I happen to sprout them at a time when the pond is full of water, rather than receeding. The feet only make me swim slower, and I am eaten. There is no reason to expect that this one in ten million occurrence will EVER happen at a time when it actually helps.
        Also, while the actions of predators/competitors could be characterized as some type of non-random process, the facts remains that these predators and competitors are also the result of random mutations, with randomly arising traits selected only by environmental factors that happen to be prevailing at the exact place and time the mutation happens.
        For these reasons, its impossible to describe natural selection as something other than random, without describing it as some type of transcendent, intelligent, creative force.

  • PaulBot 1138

    Basically a rehash of the Argument from Design, which is excellent, because this is one of the stronger arguments, as evidenced by its opponents' tendency to dismiss it via straw-man attacks.
    I've often claimed, as the author here seems to, that evolution itself provides a startlingly large body of evidence for design. Nice to see that this is being taken up against those who wrongheadedly assume that the epistemological naturalism of scientific inquiry can in any way engender an ontological naturalism.

  • elvischannel

    Even if there is an Intelligent Designer, that doesn't necessarily mean worship is required.

    • Steve Willy

      But it would sure make it a lot more plausible than the reigning material-reductionist paradigm would ever admit.

  • nych

    "Somehow our universe has been designed in such a way that specific designs do work, whether it is for better or for worse"

    LOL, and the alternative is a universe where NO "design" works, which seems to me would look like a universe with no consistent physical laws at all, pure chaos. Any universe in which sentience could evolve would almost surely be one with nonchaotic or regular repeatable processes of some kind, and therefore "designs" would "work", without need to invoke a mystical/metaphysical reason, the mere existence of predictable phenomena being sufficient.

    "What makes biology so inherently teleological? Biological features can be understood in terms of effects—that is, in terms of survival problems that need to be effectively solved."

    No, biology randomly produces an incredibly small variation slightly resembling a hammer, and any slightly nail-like problem will have a TINYbit better chance of being "solved" and adding to organism fitness.

    Apropos the butterfly eyespots, when they initially emerge as a tiny purposeless variation, they are "for" NOTHING, but if they HAPPEN, BY PURE CHANCE to increase fitness in SOME way, be it predator scaring, mating attraction, etc., they will be passed on. Any selected for variation is "FOR" whatever fitness advantage it coincidentally happened to provide after first occurring for literally NO purpose whatsoever.

    "How come that certain biological designs “work,” and are “successful” and “effective” in reaching their “goal”? What is it that makes them “goal-directed”? What carries them through the filter of natural selection"

    Again, they are NOT goal directed, they increase fitness in SOME accidental way, and once they "acquire" this "purpose" then further RANDOM UNDIRECTED variations which increase fitness in this same way, OR A DIFFERENT WAY, are selected for. This is why sometimes features which had a certain initial function "all of a sudden" provide fitness in a totally different aspect and their "increased fitness arrow" points in a different direction, so that analogical organs in different organisms can have totally different functions in each creature after a time.

    " Natural selection on its own cannot do the “job” unless it works within a framework of purpose and design."

    So you assert, without evidence. Well, at least by considering merely your own intuition or lack of ability to imagine otherwise as "evidence".
    Natural selection "selects"(well NOTHING really, nature is not intentional, but intentional or teleological language is such a convenient FICTION and is simply how we describe nature by habit and due to our evolved behavior of hyper agency detection, but I digress), so, to use a convenient semantic fiction, selection "selects" from among completely random variations, the "fittest", or perhaps more often simply the "least not-fit"

    " Without this “cosmic design,” there couldn’t even be any natural selection."

    Why not? You SEEM to be saying that random mutation, the raw material of evolution, simply would not occur without "design" That is the only way of thinking I can imagine would lead to your assertion. Otherwise, random variation is sufficient to provide "choices" to "select" from. Do you not believe in radiation or chemically induced changes in molecules, in other words do you think an invisible hand is at work in all this and what we call chemistry and physics is really God pushing molecules around in such a way that we are deceived into believing purely physical processes are at work? Or perhaps you simply mean if the universe did not exist in its current form , there would be nothing to select from, and since "obviously" God made nature how it is, thus "cosmic design" allows evolution. THAT would be even LESS supportable on evidence, if possible, though I do believe my first guess is closer.

    "Natural selection can only select those specific designs that are in accordance with the cosmic design"

    Natural selection can favor ANY actualized variation, barring "divine intervention", which you seem to think occurs. Do you mean that God only allows certain variations to occur and blocks others, not part of this "cosmic design"? Or is it that the selection of said variations, being a consequence of laws of the cosmos, therefore tutalogically follows the "cosmic design?" If thus, then whence a designer, since physical processes alone are at work and , given the same universe, would give identical results whether said cosmos and laws occurred by chance or design, barring, as i said, DIRECT intervention?

    The article is part question begging and part non-sequitir. You QB most egregiously by calling random variations "designs" and then positing a "cosmic" design, a phrase by which I can only imagine you mean "God's 'blueprint' for the universe."

    After rereading word by word and attempting to parse this article in a logical framework, i find despite initial appearances no sound and valid argument, consisting of true(or even arguable) premises, and inferences which logically follow from said premises. You have said essentially nothing. Wait, that is untrue. I suppose "Goddidit" is SOMETHING; in this case, as in all others, a naked assertion dressed in see-through prose.