Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine September – October 2011

Cosmic Purpose in the Contemporary Philosophy of Biology

The Gregorian University have just published the proceedings of their, Vatican sponsored, March 2009 conference "Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories - A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after "The Origin of Species" (Ed.s G. Auletta, M. Leclerc, and R. A. Martinez, Rome, Italy: Gregorian and Biblical Press, 2011). The volume is also designated as part of a series: "Analecta Gregoriana, 312".

We gave an overview of the conference in the May 2009 instalment of this column. We made particular mention of a lecture by the Jesuit William Stoeger, who is based at the Vatican's Arizona Observatory and at Arizona University. In his paper entitled "Emergence, Directionality and Finality in an Evolutionary Universe", Stoeger affirmed that,

"a 'functional finality' or 'teleonomy' is written into the laws of nature, across its hierarchical layers. Whilst Fr Edward Holloway, founder of Faith movement, argues that such is positive evidence for God, Stoeger caught the mood of the conference by simply saying it was not inconsistent with there existing - above and beyond science - a 'theological teleology, a reason for it all', and thus it was not inconsistent with the existence of God."

In the introduction to his fascinating paper (p. 479 of the above volume), Stoeger states of the structures in nature, especially across evolution:

"... All novelty and emergence is really due to the constitutive relationships at lower levels which enable and effect the emergence of novel systems and organisms at higher levels. Along with the importance of these relationships, are several other key features: the nested hierarchies of organisation at hundreds - if not thousands - of different levels on this planet... the same laws of physics and chemistry function throughout the universe, and everything is related to everything else, often in highly differentiated ways.

"... an amazing array of intricately related, and interdependent systems and networks of systems has emerged at all levels, and then evolved further into new systems and networks, [e.g.] living organisms ... They exhibit capabilities and behaviours far beyond those of their basic components. ... [They] are not causally reducible to or determinable by their individual operations.

"This continually unfolding emergence of new and intricately organised systems and organisms strongly suggests a directionality in the history of the universe, and in the history of the Earth and of life on it... many recent interdisciplinary pundits postulate an overarching finality or teleology - a purposefulness - to the unfolding universe, and to nature itself as it evolves on Earth ...

"Though it seems impossible either to confirm or deny such an overarching cosmic purpose on the basis of the natural sciences alone, it is clear that within systems and organisms themselves, a certain local, focused teleology has emerged - as differentiated functionality. Each component of a complex system or organism has a particular function within it - a function which is often essential to its survival and integrity. We have for instance in the bodies of mammals the life-giving functions of the heart, the kidneys, the lungs, the brain and its key components. And as any system or organism is always a part of some larger system, organism or ecology, it in turn fulfils a certain function, or set of functions - which is often interpreted as having a certain 'purpose' within that largersystem. And natural selection itself supplies the preference for the organisms which are more fit and functionally adapted relative to a given environment. This itself implies a certain directionality, even finality.

"It is far from controversial to recognise this pervasive and amazing pattern of the emergence of novelty and incredible variety throughout the history of the cosmos and of the earth. ... It is somewhat controversial to go further and maintain that there is a general directionality to the unfolding cosmos - and to the overall evolution of systems within it. Among most biologists there is strong resistance to asserting that. However, there are some, along with a number of biophysicists, cosmologists, astrobiologists, and complex systems specialists, who strongly support this conclusion on scientific grounds. ... By 'directionality' in this sense - as a scientifically accessible or discernible movement - I do not mean one with a single unique, or even definite, goal, but simply one whichproceeds towards a definite range of possible outcomes - which become more focused and delimited as evolution continues. It is not necessarily goal determined -though it may be - but is primarily process driven. ...

"This continual emergence of novelty in nature ... reflects the deep consonance and compatibility of cosmological and biological conclusions about origins with the best that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologies of creation have to offer. This is not at all surprising, given that, from a theological perspective, Nature is the ongoing 'work' of the Creator. Oftentimes, however, either our concepts of Creator and creation are so inadequate, or our interpretations of scientific conclusions so philosophically distorted or shallow, that an authentic and careful rapproachment between the two becomes nearly impossible.

"... to what extent can strictly scientific conclusions of natural sciences as such validly support a definite purpose to our universe? ..."

The concluding words of his paper are:

"... we can certainly say that all that we have found in the sciences supports a deep compatibility and consonance with our less inadequate understandings of the Divine. And, certainly, relationality-based emergence, along with the directionalities, the local functional finalities at every level, and the relative autonomy of nature, is at the core of this profound consonance."


Faith Magazine

September - October 2011