Society and God
An Inquiry into the Foundations of the Human World
A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

                Lecture 1:  Introduction: Purposes and Teleology

            In the spring we investigated the idea of purposes. These are nothing strange to us. A purpose is a goal or an aim or an intention. Almost all our actions as adult human beings are done for a purpose. And it is our purposes that explain our actions. Why do people go to work? In order to earn money. Why do they want money? In order to buy things. Why do they buy food? in order to satisfy their hunger, or to stay alive. Staying alive is one of our main purposes.

            But not everything we do is an action for a purpose. The opposite of acting for a purpose is when we cannot help doing something. After I have had eight hours of sleep I wake up. This is something that just happens to me; or if I set an alarm clock the alarm wakes me. If I have worked in the garden all day and then had dinner, sometimes I just fall asleep in front of the television. My sleepiness is not intentional but is caused by my labor. If I am in hospital and I am given an anaesthetic, the anaesthetic causes me to become unconscious. While most of our activity is purposive or intentional, some of it is the result of causes over which, at least at that time,  we have little or no control.

            A purpose begins as an idea in our mind. We make it a purpose when we decide to bring it about. We make a plan, even if only a simple one. Purposes result from intelligence. Beings that have intelligence have purposes. But purposes do not have to be conscious. We also have unconscious purposes, which we do not think about explicitly but which can be very powerful.

            It is not only human beings that have purposes. Animals also have them, though in a slightly different sense, in accordance with their level of intelligence. My neighbor's cat kills birds in order to eat them. The purpose is instinctive, rather than a plan that has been worked out rationally and deliberately. But it is a purpose. The cat has the idea in his mind of catching and killing the bird before he does it. This is clear because he arranges his actions beforehand for that purpose: he prowls around looking for birds that can be caught and killed.

            But it is not only animals and humans that have purposes. Plants also have purposes, though again in a different sense. Obviously plants do not think; they do not possess intelligence.  Nonetheless, they behave in some ways like beings that do.  They manifest a kind of foresight or planning. Some plants catch animals or insects for the purpose of eating them. Some produce chemicals of a specially poisonous  kind in order to ward off the unwelcome attention of other living beings. They send roots down into the soil in search of food and water. They turn towards the sun. 

            Not only plants behave in purposeful ways, but even bacteria do. Many bacteria have the ability to move around in search of food. Some secrete chemicals into their environment in order to modify it for eating. Some are bioluminescent, and this is thought to be for the purpose of attracting fish. Some form biofilms, in which they communicate with one another.

            Even the group of beings called archaea, only recently identified and in some respects the most primitive, have metabolism, which means they differentiate functions within themselves.

            Not only do all the living beings we know engage in behavior that is directed towards purposes, but their physical structures all plainly manifest purpose. Our hands are obviously for grasping things, our brain is for thinking, our feet for walking, our lungs for breathing. This differentiation of structure exists not only in us but in all animals; and in plants. Plants have roots and branches, flowers and fruits, sexual organs (most of them).  All living beings are organized. Every biological shape is produced as a whole, and when the tree grows, it is guided to grow into this shape of the whole. In short, all living things manifest purpose both in their activities and in their structures. These purposes are not conscious or the product of deliberate thought. They are natural purposes. The overall technical term for these manifestations of what seem like purposes is teleology. A teleology is an activity or structure aimed at a goal or purpose on any level of life. (Telos: Greek for goal or purpose.)  Aristotle even thought, confusedly, there were teleologies in inanimate nature.

            Now the big question for us is: how is all this purposefulness to be explained? There are two theories. According to one theory, purpose is a sign of intelligence, and this is true even of natural purposes.  The teleologies we find in the activities and the structures of all living beings can only be ultimately the product of a mind. But if the world of life is the product of a mind, that mind must be the greatest of the realities in the universe.  And if the world of life should be the product of a mind, that will have far-reaching consequences for the way we view ourselves.

            Most scientists today, however, have a very different point of view. They  argue that all these myriad examples of purposefulness are illusory. In reality, they believe, there is no such thing as a purpose on any level of being. What appear to be purposes are merely mechanisms.  A purpose, if it existed,  would be a special kind of causality, which would bring things about under the guidance of a thought or concept or plan which one has in mind before the action. But scientists believe there is only one kind of causality in the world and it is mechanical. It produces or gives rise to things without any thought, only as a result of the blind interplay of motions. They believe this even about their own human and intelligent purposes. Everything that appears on the surface to be a purpose or goal is actually, if only we analyze it thoroughly enough, they hold, a machine.  Intelligence is nothing different. It is just a mechanical process. We are all, as Professor Paul Liebman wrote to me recently, "cognitive robots." This however does not prevent the scientific world from marvelling at the achievements of nature. On the contrary, they say, usually with little sense of irony: "What marvellous things machines are, when they can produce so many wonderful things!"

            This belief in mechanism or mechanicism (the proper name of their philosophy) is based upon the work of Darwin. Darwin has demonstrated once and for all, they believe,  that the appearance of purpose in the world can be fully explained mechanistically. He is thought to have done this by his theory of evolution by natural selection, showing that all the great diversity of living beings can be explained sufficiently  through the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, without making any mention of a mind guiding the process.        

            More recently biological science has found what it considers a new and largely independent basis for its theory.  This is the discovery of DNA, or more broadly the science of genetics. Genetic science reveals the actual molecules and atoms that make up the genetic code and that cause living beings to have all the various qualities that they possess. Thus, without the intervention of any mind at all, the whole biological world is revealed as a gigantic system of machines, operating automatically under the impact of one another's blind causative movements.

            In our lectures in the spring, however, we took the first view. We pointed out, for one thing,  that dead DNA achieves nothing. It must first exist in a living being if it is to produce results.  It cannot itself, then, explain life.  The science of genetics has certainly added enormously to our knowledge of the mechanisms that life uses to accomplish its ends. But it offers no substitute for the unique power and energy of life.

            Second, we argued that Darwin misunderstood his own argument.  Although it is true that the forms of living beings are not necessarily the direct product of a conscious designing mind, and so to that extent Darwin was correct, nonetheless those forms are the product of natural purposes. Living beings struggle for existence because they naturally desire to live. They struggle for the purpose of living. The outcome of the struggle is no doubt a matter of chance, but the struggle itself is not at all merely a matter of chance. It takes place because of the dynamic nature of life. Life is inherently teleological or purpose-seeking.  The struggle of living beings with one another for existence is a purposive or teleological activity. For the struggle is guided by a preexisting thought or concept or plan: to survive. Admittedly the struggle of an animal to continue existing amid competition from other animals is not a deliberate or conscious purpose, it is only an instinctive or natural purpose, but it is still teleological.  The dog has an instinctual understanding of what it means to be alive, and that understanding drives him to fight. Even more admittedly, the struggle of a tree to survive amid the threats to its existence from other trees or its environment is not a conscious purpose, and not even an instinctive one, but only a biological purpose. Still, we can see as the tree grows that it does so in fulfillment of a purpose. It begins as a seed, such as an acorn.  This seed is not static. It does not rest content with being what it is. It is dynamic. It seeks to grow, and for that purpose to ingest food and water.  Its growth is guided by a plan: the concept of the mature tree which it seeks to attain. The forms of the living world are created by the inherent purposes of life.

            If we once understand this universal teleology of the living world, it transforms our view of human existence. No living thing is merely a machine, and we ourselves least of all. The teleology of life and mind gives us as human beings our power of will, and the freedom of our will. Out of the freedom of our will flows moral responsibility, and with it moral goodness and moral evil. We are in charge of ourselves. That is the foundation of our human dignity.

            Now if we accept this teleological view of life, including especially human life and human dignity, we are faced with a further question: what is the explanation of this state of affairs? This is the question of God.