Finding Purpose in Creation

Editorial FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Matt 6:28-29)

The Presumptions of Materialism

Atheist materialists view existence as ultimately meaningless; a fascinating adventure perhaps, a roller-coaster ride along the slipstream of cosmic chance and coincidence, but with no original purpose and no final goal beyond the swirl and flow of material events. However, this does not mean that atheist philosophers of science view the actual universe as random. The ordered rationality of matter and the practical effectiveness of scientific discoveries is too obvious to draw such a conclusion. They do find coherence in the interactions of material things, but they think that the laws of matter are an all sufficient explanation of life.

It is effectively an article of 'faith' for the materialist to believe that everything must be reducible to material laws, even when they cannot explain how things such as human consciousness and free will fit into the deterministic patterns of matter. Some are even prepared to stretch the definition of matter to include much that would traditionally have been called "spirit" in order to protect preemptively their assertion of universal materialism. We will return to this a little later. However, first we should notice that there is a more fundamental point which is often overlooked. For all their materialism, materialists still feel obliged to find a unifying and interpretative key to how everything works. What they are actually assuming in doing this, often quite uncritically,is that matter manifests a relationship to meaning, and by implication, therefore, to mind.

Even Richard Dawkins posits a basic level of meaningful unity within matter at the level of the gene. He calls the gene "selfish", in the sense of blind and impersonal, but in doing this he is actually positing a law of purposive survival which pertains to the gene as a unit of existence. He is also claiming that this law is the interpretative key to the whole of existence on this planet.

In fact it is quite arbitrary to choose the gene as the only meaningful unit of organization in matter, because that is already a relatively high level of synthesis built upon preceding patterns of physical and chemical order. And in any case "the gene" is a purely analytic sub unit of the greater and more significant complex that is the genetic code along the chromosomes of any organism. And it is a code, a system of natural meanings set within the laws of biochemistry that is anything but random. In fact, more and more the genetic code appears to work according to a highly complex and precise syntax of molecular intelligibility which cannot be truly understood if we focus only on the individual genes.

The point becomes even more obvious with Dawkins' more recent and frankly thoroughly metaphysical idea of the 'meme'. The concept of a meme is proposed as of any unit of information which shapes reality simply to the benefit of its own replication. Self evidently this relies on a prior conception of intelligibility. Information, whether genetic or memetic must be information about something and for a purpose within a context. The champions of atheist memetics often smuggle in a covert value judgment about 'good' and 'bad' memes into their world view, without ever justifying where this cosmic meta-value is grounded.

It makes no sense to acknowledge organisation and purposefulness at the level of the individual unit but then to deny it to the vast ordered and dynamic unity they form together. Some external principle is required to explain the unity-out-of-multiplicity of any organised system. However we analyse it, material being is intelligible to us at every level from the quark to the quasar, from the boson to the brain of man, and where there is intelligibility there must be Intelligence.

As Cardinal Ratzinger put it his Introduction To Christianity, the cosmos has evidently been "thought into being". As Pope Benedict XVI he summed up the question more recently:

"Ultimately it comes down to the alternative: What came first? Creative Reason, the Creator Spirit who makes all things and gives them growth, or Unreason, which, lacking any meaning, strangely enough brings forth a mathematically ordered cosmos, as well as man and his reason. The latter, however, would then be nothing more than a chance result of evolution and thus, in the end, equally meaningless. As Christians, we say: I believe in God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in the Creator Spirit. We believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word, with Reason and not Unreason." {Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI, Ignatius Press 2007)

And as Edward Holloway put it in Catholicism, A New Synthesis:

"It is the mind of God which imposes ontological unity in multiplicity upon the formulations of complex being. The complex substance is a unity of being because a 'thing' is what God knows it to be [...T]he Being of God [...] as Pure Act is the only sufficient reason for the unity and entity of every form of being, and the overall unity... of Nature." [Edward Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis (CNS) p.26]

The Recognition of Mind

We cannot help but recognise some kind of intelligibility at work in Nature. You could say that mens ad mentem loquitur as much as cor ad coram loquitur. The argument is really about what precisely is the 'intelligence' we find in Nature, and how it organises matter into a creative economy of inter-related entities.

It will not do simply to invoke the "the environment" as the organising principle. The environment is, after all, just other material being taken as a collective of mutually interlocking natures. The question of organisational principle is simply deferred not answered. If we invoke the values of "survival", and "selection for fitness" according to those values, as the fundamental law of material existence, we have actually invoked a principle of order and an implicit value that frames and suffuses the whole material enterprise. This 'law', which necessarily transcends the individual parts that act and react according to its conditions, actually resolves to a simpler and more profound principle, a principle of intelligibility through ordered meaning and meaningful order. One could simplycall it 'control and direction'.

Why "direction" as well as "control"? Because any acknowledgement of intelligibility also implies an ordering towards functional purpose. Living forms are actively orientated towards each other for their very identity and fulfilment. They are locked together in bonds of mutual causality, mutual well being and mutual limitation, genesis and nemesis. For the newborn lambs in the farmers' fields every Spring, the mother ewes and the grass under their feet mean something that calls to them from every fibre of their nascent being. Likewise the eagle and the fox are meaningful to the lamb as danger and possible death. Everything around them has meaningful impact, evoking instinctive response, directing their life and defining their place within the environment.

Just as we cannot escape the implication of intelligence at the universal level when we consider the controlled intelligibility of everything within the universe, neither can we honestly escape the perception of direction to the whole course of the cosmos when we perceive the directed intelligibility of every form and function within it.

Direction in Nature

Even so, the idea of direction in Nature is generally greeted with horror by many scientists. They see it as introducing an alien and arbitrary power into the operation of natural laws. Unfortunately, theories of so called Intelligent Design have often played to this prejudice, seeing 'design' in terms of special intervention by God to direct the course of this or that particular material feature. We need rather to stand back and see the seamless directional intelligibility of the whole. The design and purpose is not a superimposition upon the laws of matter, it is in the laws of matter, which is to say that it is the very constitution of material being.

Is there a random element in the constitution of matter? At most simple levels of material synthesis, individual nodes of organization like subatomic particles are only determinate as functions within a bigger framework, so it is perhaps not surprising that their behaviour can only be expressed in terms of statistical probability. There will also be an incredibly complex shuffling and shifting of patterns within the system that is dependent on myriad variables. But the outcome of these interactions does in fact resolve into the vast odyssey of life which has shaped the many phases of environmental change on earth. If Nature were random in the true sense of the word, then there could be no physics, chemistry or biology or any functional environment, or indeed any cohesive universe atall.

Through all of the waxing and waning of life forms, where even extinction events create the biochemical, ecological and perhaps the genetic possibility of another phase arising, there has been an evident ascent of life on earth. This is most evident of all in the development of the central nervous system and the brain out of the notochord of more primitive creatures. Indeed that may be the only true orthogenetic pathway in Nature, the organic outcome around which the initial conditions were framed with breathtaking precision and complexity.

Determined materialists like Dawkins still insist that any perception of overall progress in the diversification of living forms is just an illusion. Although it is interesting to note that they have to concede that this is indeed how things appear to be. Once again they can only explain away by appeal to another principle of order: for example, the neo-Darwinian argument that life on earth only seems to be teleological "because of environmental and molecular constraints on the direction of change" (from the online Wikipedia entry for 'orthogenesis'). That, of course, is begging the question. Those "environmental and molecular constraints" are themselves part of the whole ordered and developmental equation that makes meaningful mutation possible. What they are saying, in otherwords, is that things only appear to develop in a directional way because of the limits and possibilities inherent in the laws of physics and chemistry. Well precisely. The laws of physics, chemistry and biology are not separate and coincidental to each other. They all of a piece. So directionality is no illusion, therefore. It is a cosmic fact.

The synthesis of molecular compounds from atoms, and these from subatomic energies, is bound up with the primal formation and dissolution of stars and galaxies. The complex biochemicals formed out of those building blocks are bound up with the energy of the sun and the changing atmosphere on earth. The formation of life further depends on the ebb and flow of the tides and temperatures and the minerals in the rocks, and so on and so on.

In short, the limits and possibilities of development are built into the initial conditions of the universe. The formation of new levels of ordered complexity is on the basis of preceding levels of ordered simplicity. The simpler types of existent do not cease to exist, of course, but once higher material synthesis has occurred, there is no going back to an earlier state of the universe. It has been a unidirectional journey through time from the inception of the cosmos. In fact, Time itself is a one way process precisely because the series of material events is intrinsically directional. 'Time' is simply the measure of that causal flow. The atheist biologist may dismiss any talk of "ascent" in the array of living things as an illusion, but the cosmic movement from physics to chemistry,from chemistry to biology, from microbe to man cannot honestly be described as anything else.

Reconnecting Creation and Salvation History

When materialists attribute the growth of the tree of life simply to "natural selection" they are actually taking for granted the cosmic conditions that permit the synthesis of higher levels of intelligible unity out of the precisely ordered conditions of the lower potentialities.

Yet it is also true that the formal reality of the higher states of material being are not actually contained in the lower states. In this sense matter in its mathematically expressible functionality and interactions is indeed blind when considered in itself. Still, we do know and we can see in retrospect that those energies are in fact pregnant with a potential that does produce the full panoply of life on earth and the masterpiece of neural engineering that is the human brain. Like a literal pregnancy, therefore, the developing equation of energies must exist within a higher context. The foresight that comprehends the existential future and defines the final formality to which the initial potential is relative can only reside in a transcendent point of unity that makes the equationaluniverse a meaningful and directional whole.

"The equation could not begin unless it were poised meaningfully to its historic progress, but neither could the higher unity be there as a unity ... unless at all times the Equation and its potential were relative to the necessity whose other name is GOD. To make the universe intelligible and the progression to higher being, up to and including man, intelligible, God is a necessity not only of metaphysics but also of mathematics." (CNS p.66)

This may be a startling thought, even a perplexing thought for our secular age, and an equally strange one to schools of thinking which tend to see the physical and metaphysical as entirely separate. But as Pope Benedict affirmed recently, the material cosmos is "simultaneously physical and metaphysical" (Epiphany Sermon). The meanings in matter are simultaneously both physical and metaphysical. For metaphysics is not abstraction, but the perception and analysis of the existential from a higher perspective.

"The metaphysical [... is] most beautifully an existential term, and an experience of the beauty of things, and the unity within diversity by which things are bonded to each other in their innermost reality and inter-definition." (CNS, ibid)

So we say that the intelligibility of the cosmos as both controlled and directed requires it to be related to a transcendent Intelligence and creative Will. This is not really a new thought, but rather the fuller deployment of the medieval insight into God as first, formal and final cause against the fuller backdrop of our more detailed understanding of the material universe, which allows us to re-integrate the Christian vision of creation with the Catholic vision of salvation history.

The Messiah and the Unity Law

The unity of control and direction, which is material being as it builds through time and space to its climax in man, is but the partial expression of a greater reality, a Law that defines and drives the unfolding a deeper purpose aligned on a yet higher goal. The complex of ordered energy that is the human body centred on the brain must itself be integrated through its own individual principle of transcendental control and direction - the centred knowing and loving as person which we call our 'soul'. And like every other creature we must also seek our life-law and our ultimate well-being from that which is greater than ourselves. We must live and move and find our being within an Environment that is both spiritual and transcendent but which can touch our inmost being and fill ourincarnate existence as truly as the sunlight touches and awakens the trees in Springtime to blossom and bear fruit.

The Law of Control and Direction as it is expressed in human nature is framed in terms of a relationship - a relationship based on God's free initiative and on our free response. It is no longer an economy of mathematical law but of revelation and grace, faith and obedience, of providence and prayer. Yet there will still be growth and development in that relationship, from simple beginnings to the full deployment of God's purpose on earth. The religion of revelation will be naturally developmental as great souls seek deeper union with God and receive fuller wisdom by contemplating his word. Structures of spiritual and social control and direction suitable to the nature of man will be established as part of the fabric of community life under God's personal guidance. The authority and thecare of God will become ever more incarnate in the lives of his people. That revealed word will be naturally prophetic too, pregnant with fuller meanings and the call towards a fullness yet to come.

As we attempted to outline in our last editorial, when we search the pages of human history we do find such a line of spiritual and religious tradition that not only claims the direct authority of the Absolute Transcendent One whose name is "I Am Who I Am", but is also coherently developmental in doctrine and in providence across millennia. Despite the disaster and setbacks of human weakness, this tradition grows in depth and clarity, pointing with ever more urgent expectation to the coming of someone who will be the fullness of revelation and the end of history.

Indeed it is the dramatic claim of the Christian scriptures that all creation, both physical and spiritual, is brought to its Head in Christ. He is the source of our perfection through union and communion with God, which is why, following the disaster of the Fall, the burden of redeeming the shattered economy of grace falls on his shoulders. Through his victory over sin and all its effects in both body and soul he is the centre of renewed control and direction for fallen humanity. Reformation in truth and authentic love come from union with him in the Church, as creation is healed and perfected to the full measure of God's original will.

God's Purpose in Christ - the Wisdom of Love

This is quite a journey for the atheist mind to make, but through it all we can show a wonderful continuity of principle in all the works of God from creation to Christ in his final glory. However, our debate is not only with atheist scientists and philosophers. Many contemporary thinkers do indeed recognise purpose in the universe. But all too often they place an emergent spirituality within matter itself. So much contemporary spirituality, ranging from the pantheism of "Gaia" environmentalism to the process theology and panentheism of some Catholic schools of thought, presume some variant or other of this view. And as we noted earlier, some "materialist" thinkers are prepared to include spiritual phenomena within their definition of matter in order to maintain their materialist stanceand exclude transcendence from their world view.

Whether implicitly or explicitly such monist thinking effectively makes "God" a co-valent of the process of creative becoming. What this really means is that there is no God properly speaking. What remains is another form of humanism in which Man himself is God-in-the-making. Such an outlook is more appealing than the cold atheism of Marxism or secular scientism. It readily adopts the language and trappings of revealed religion, yet reformulates doctrine as metaphor, and abolishes moral absolutes in favour of flexible aspirations. It is this view of religion that informs Tony Blair and his Faith Foundation.

Actually, confusion of matter and spirit undermines the objectivity of science too. So Catholic orthodoxy is in fact a defender of the integrity of science and its methodology, because it is through its very rationality and intelligibility

that science necessarily points beyond itself to a higher Wisdom. What is needed is a synthetic vision of the natural and the supernatural in which there is union but not confusion between the two.

For Edward Holloway man is truly oriented towards fulfilment in God. And this is not a merely theological notion. We seek God with a real spiritual hunger and from a positive joy in goodness lived that engenders existential peace and prompts a recognition that seeks deeper knowledge, higher perfection and greater communion in love. Yet the initiative belongs to God. The awakening and the seeking are themselves the touch of divine grace. So while human nature is truly "capax Dei", our end in God remains absolutely supernatural and always, therefore, God's free and gracious gift:

"...we must avoid the notion that the created spirit, because its only intelligible end is God, has any "claims", "rights" or "debts" to collect upon the nature of God. No, the meaning of man, and the intelligibility of man, which must proceed as a factor from the very fact that man does exist, and must mean something, this intelligibility of man is related not to the Divine Essence as a claim, but only to the Divine Wisdom, as a principle of meaning for the whole of creation. Man must have an end in God, and a joy in God, not because man necessitates God, and thereby logically becomes part of God, but because the Divine Wisdom and Will that is evident in man must be true unto Itself. God cannot, because he is God, act irrationally, or with cruelty. These very wordsdenote a defect of being, and God is Perfect Being. Our surety then upon God for our end and our very intelligibility as spiritual persons does not arise from the claims or debts that our spiritual substance vindicates against the Divine Essence. Our surety, which stands forth in all that we have and are is the Divine Wisdom and the Divine Charity. This is good enough. There is no wisdom more substantially true to itself nor love more unchanging than that which proceeds within the substance of God". (CNS p.109)

Pope Benedict summed up the same point with his habitual succinctness and insight in his Homily for Feast of the Epiphany 2009 when he said, "He is the centre of the cosmos and history because in Him Author and work are united without merging".

We do find direction as well as control in the constitution of matter which leads to man, and through man to Christ as the Key to the meaning of Universe, the Centre of history and Lord of the Human mind and heart. But this does not mean that our salvation rests on a cosmic theodicy. Salvation rests, as does the whole of creation, on the supreme and self consistent love, the free self-giving of the one in whom and for whom all things were made in obedience to the Father's eternal will.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2009