Saturday, July 17, 2010

On “Teleology” and “the Fall”

The end-seeking character of the life phenomenon has long been of great interest to me. Organic life surrounds us—and human-made products all of which are purposive. It is therefore very easy to feel that the teleological is a dominant feature of living reality. But any even minor contemplation of the wider cosmos, especially with modern observation giving us a great deal more information than earlier times had on hand, suggests the very opposite. It suggests that end-seeking entities are only found on earth, at least so far as we’re able to determine. Even just an examination of the solar system reveals an enormous number of bodies, large and small, bereft of any teleological performance. A favorite of mine is the asteroid belt, most likely the result of a planetary collision: countless rocks move there on orbital paths, have moved for millions of years, in darkness; they give nary the breath of a hint of what purpose they could possibly have. And as best as our telescopes can tell us, the cosmos is filled with inorganic objects just like these rocks, by the billions of trillions. We only see the very big and hot ones; they’re all moving but not by inner causes; they’re chained in space by gravity. Using the presumption of the uniformity of nature, we project very large numbers of other planets featuring life; statistical projection would yield such a result, but we have no positive proof at all that anything lives out there in the sense of moving itself and reproducing.

This situation produces certain problems for me. The problem, you might say. It has different facets like a diamond. One might put it this way. In the absence of teleology the universe displays no meaning. Even if life—and conscious life—existed on trillions of planets equally as hidden as ours—the only meaning of the cosmos would be concentrated in the living entities on them. Yet in each such solar system, in addition to a vast sun which made this life possible, there would (uniformity of nature, etc.) be the mass of other big bodies, rocks, and comets, an enormous (call it administrative) overhead for the bit of flowering life. But the purpose of this overhead, assuming that life is its aim, is not discernible to me, the sun aside. It seems in fact to be irrelevant. Realistically considered, life appears much more like an infestation, like a fungus on a statue, an infestation on an otherwise stalwartly and stoically meaningless order of simple being. The cosmos doesn’t point to humans (or birds, bees, or bacteria) despise Brandon Carter’s Anthropic Principle, which in turn is based on the notion that all kinds of other universes could exist. I think of this facet as the “incommensurability” —of life and cosmos.

The problem of incommensurability remains even if we assume that the story told in Genesis is at least poetically true—if the creation of the cosmos ex nihilo is assumed to be part of the story rather than already present as the chaos or the void. The aim of the act is Man. What purpose then does the creation of billions of galaxies serve? Or is this just a tiny episode in a more colossal creation story of which we have no inkling—in which those galaxies have some kind of meaning? And we’re still, as it were, too little to be told?

Another facet of this problem is that teleology is meaning—a genuine marker which says that meaning does exist in the cosmos. What life displays, however, is not really divine design. What life shows is a tour de force by means of which some agency—but well short of divine—coaxes law-abiding but otherwise meaningless inorganic matter to manifest self-moving entities with purposive and even conscious behavior. To study life in its details, the details of its manifestation, thus its mechanisms—which are far from explaining life itself—is to come face-to-face with technology orders of magnitude more sophisticated than ours but similarly “evolved” by what seems to be a process of trial and error, intention and serendipity. This technology operates against a tremendous inertial resistance. But an omnipotent being needs no technology and faces no resistance in manifesting a creature or, for that matter, a vehicle for it. It says “Be!” and there you are. But life is a technology. It behaves like a super-complex log-rolling performance during which we use solar power to roll that log in the water until our bodies just can’t any more. Our manifestation of teleology is also inconclusive. It does not show its true end. We die. The purpose of this physical manifestation is not to continue forever; no; its evident purpose is to achieve something while it is alive. The only way in which the manifest teleology of life points towards divinity is in displaying agencies, by means of bodies, and agencies, furthermore, that lack omnipotent powers and must struggle against inertia. Something must have caused them to Be. But to infer that this command, to Be, meant to be inside bodies—that conclusion is not at all evident, despite the poetic image of God forming Adam from the clay of the earth.

That image I find problematical. Man is an artificer, a limited creature, not God. Another aspect of the Genesis story, however, I find oddly attractive and informative. I like the idea of the Fall, considered here as a raw concepts without specification, in the sense that it might be taken for a calamity of some sort, never mind how it was caused. The effect of such an idea, that of a calamity, is to defer any cosmological consideration to another phase of my existence, anyway, a time when I shall have succeeded in extricating myself from this mess, not before. It narrows the focus to the task at hand. To put this another way, this existence appears to be an adaptation to a most unnatural situation for beings like ourselves (logrolling, etc.).

How this calamity came about and how we got here is only captured symbolically by the concept of the Fall, but the Fall is not only a useful concept but also intuitively matches our experience—that of suffering as well as having aspirations, thus the teleological character of life. The very fact that we can’t do better than that—better than talking about a Fall without specifying precisely how it came about, the mechanism of it, etc.—may be due to what the Fall did to us. It plunged us into deep ignorance (the Buddhist version of it). For my purposes, of course, the Fall should not be detailed. To speak of sin, error, or disobedience has no proof either way. Our sinful nature here may be due to ignorance, thus caused by the Fall rather than causing it. It could have been our fault, of course; we take it to be our fault, but that may be the same reaction we sometimes have when misfortune befalls us even in those cases when we did nothing to bring it about. We don’t know. Either way.

Here my own wits only tell me that deriving our situation from an omnipotent creator isn’t helpful. We can’t know anything well enough to reach that conclusion. What we do know is that we do get help, in the form of inspiration. There is a vector. We know that even if we didn’t see the traces of teleology in all things linked to life. We also know that order is present everywhere—in both the organic and in the inorganic dispensations. A punishing God is not a concept I can buy. Therefore this process has a lawful necessity under which only that which we experience is possible (e.g., inspiration)—not the arbitrary intervention of expulsion from Paradise or miraculous rescue by omnipotence.

In summing up these various takes on teleology, teleology, it seems to me, strongly marks the presence of agency in us—not in non-living nature. In that nature lawfulness would indicate a residual sign agency, nothing else. Beyond lawfulness, it is meaningless. Teleology as we see it manifesting here appears to be a unique situation, not part of the design of the cosmos. To derive the meaning of the cosmos from teleology manifesting in life here is more of a philosophical extrapolation to dangerously fuzzy extremes than I would hazard. Our situation suggests, however, something of the truth of a genuine Fall of some sort, of a project, limited to our community of souls, to get out of the pit. And a reality vastly richer than we conceive of it—and own role in it probably rather humble.


The above inspired in steps beginning with a post on Siris (ht) pointing to the Gifford Lectures of Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison.

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