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In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, they do not look for , nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and binding’ binds and holds them together.
— Plato, Phaedo 99

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Plato’s description of the teleological, the account holding that final causes exist in nature, providing an underlying systemic design to the very forces that mysteriously point to the divine, is a classical riddle leading human beings to project the eschatological end times; the design of a divine being whose enterprise of death, judgment, heaven and hell ends with apocalyptic transitions from one life to another. There is a teleological presumption that this design requires a creator, or at the very least a first cause creator, one with a thoughtful mind that plans and executes that plan over which human beings have little or no control. On this view, humans are prisoners of this design, powerless to affect the outcome of the planed end of times.

It seems that eschatological programs dominate major religions of the world. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian eschatology dominate their respective belief systems. Most of the modern eschatological thinking is dominated by a violent disruption, even the destruction, of the world. Jewish and Christian eschatological understanding sees the end times as the perfection of God’s creation of the world; God created the world for a purpose and is constantly moving toward the final goal of this creation. For Jews, the end times will be noted when the messiah presents himself to the world. For the Christians the end times come when the messiah returns to the world. In either case, the end times, the perfection of creation means the end of the world as we know it; even, perhaps the destruction of the world and the end of everything.

Teleological eschatology presents a mix of optimistic joy and pessimistic terror, with pessimism holding most of the good cards. Even true believers will suffer in the end of times; the inevitability of which is programmed into the plan of which only God is certain. So we constantly face predictions of the end of the world, the most recent of which was the Mayan Apocalypse but this prediction is not isolated in the minds of those who believe in the very idea of a linear path from creation to destruction, a plan conceived by some creator God (or gods) or another to explain that which is difficult to explain.

There is, however, a significant problem with the teleological insistence on God having a plan for everything. It simply doesn’t mesh with science. Let me explore some teleological arguments juxtaposed against a single scientific program, evolution. While I do not claim this analysis as a comprehensive one, I do claim it to be a good faith, albeit brief, summary of some key ideas. One claim of those who embrace religious eschatology is that their system explains reality. Evolution, on the other hand, only claims to be an explanation of the development of life on earth without looking at or making claims about origins. Evolution or natural selection is a random process over which no design appears to dominate. Natural selection eschews the very notion of supernatural intervention into the process of biological changes while their religious counterparts claim supernatural intervention through a creation ex nihilo that is static and unchanging. Teleological eschatology claims a purpose for creation where evolution understands the world in terms of its very randomness, a randomness that creates biological diversity in constant flux; changes that are not instantaneous, rather that occur over long periods of time, far longer than the span of a human lifetime. Finally, teleological eschatology claims that the only way to avoid the ultimate catastrophic end of times is to do God’s will as they describe the will of God. Natural selection makes no such claim; it claims that biological changes are responses to environmental conditions that, in turn, provide a context to insure survival. These conditions and contexts are not part of some grand scheme but, rather, are random natural events occurring over time.

While teleological eschatology appears rational to many, it has a distinct flaw that cannot be overcome. It is dependent on its own rationale, its tautological dependence on its own sacred texts that somehow, when taken together, make up (yes, the pun is intended) a belief system that cannot be questioned. The belief system feeds upon itself, taking ancient proof texts to prove that the hand of God permeates everything. When questioned, the system falls apart. Proving the existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is fully dependent on one’s prior belief in that God without which all proofs fail. If belief is required for proof then one has a system that, on its face, is tautological in the sense that it uses a set of self-reinforcing statements or claims that are not subject to refutation; in short, using different words to say the same thing.

In the end, teleological systems fail, not because they are not rational for their internal rationality is often quite exquisite, rather they fail because they feed only upon themselves without opening the door to distinctly rational, observable, and replicable understandings.

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10 thoughts on “In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

  1. I wonder through many of the things you put so eloquently in words. However, I still rest upon the notion of God Eternal in control of all things. This God being the same for the Jewish as well as the Christian. One thing I can not help to think is that because we are human our own thought processes as much as we would want to can not explain the unexplainable. So much of God is a mystery for that reason. I wish it were not so. I long for more.

  2. Good Morning Alesia,
    There are many reasons that I am a Jewish atheist who has chosen to study ancient texts; the strongest among them is the two-fold problem of lack of evidence coupled with the insistence of the religious prelates (it matters not what religion) on using tautological evidence to ‘prove’ their mythologies. Sure, I know that people like to define faith as belief in the absence of evidence but for me that is simply a cop-out. It explains nothing yet still demands absolute adherence to a set of impossible rules that are never carried out. I study ancient Jewish texts because, in spite of the contradictions, in spite of the reliance on biblical ‘proofs’ and in spite of the often mundane arguments, these texts provide one with a methodology for reasoning that, when replaced with available rational evidence, makes for a powerful paradigm for working through universal ethical issues. I am interested in the methodology stripped of the religious connotations.
    As to the notion of explaining the unexplainable, the approach of Pragmatism is to simply leave those things alone. What cannot be explained today may be explainable tomorrow. Since rational pragmatic thought rests on asking questions that have potential answers today, those are the questions or problems to think about. The unexplainable is simply that and deserves little time or effort to try and explain. It is something like the Supreme Court’s pronouncement on pornography, “We cannot define it but we know it when we see it!”

  3. Hi Roger,
    I have been missing your posts. I had to take a break though because I have not been feeling well. However, I had been wanting to come back to your comment here at some point. So here I am . In regards to the cop outs you describe, I understand what you are trying to convey. I do not think in those terms as if my Christian belief system is an unexplainable set of proofs. On the contrary, I believe there is enormous amount of evidence in the studies done throughout archaeology and other sciences. There is a wonderful article in National Geographic Dec. , 2010 that is absolutely fascinating. There is an undisputable finding from 1993 of a Stella referring to the “House of David”. This is one example outside of the bible. There are many more. I think you would have to do some digging to find other information as this is only one example, but as you know there will always be skeptics..
    In regards to taking away certain belief system’s methodology to explain certain ethical dilemmas–the Bible is the best source on this subject by far in my opinion. I believe I mentioned to you studies were done to prove the authenticity of the bible almost all the way back to the point of Christ’s death. The bible was written of course by man, but INSPIRED by God. So each word in this book is written with the direct influence of God Himself. To me that is a mystery that I do not understand. When I pray I do not feel like I hear God yet I still do pray. It is a mystery and has become more so since my brain tumor. There is research now indicating how the brain’s “theology” area can be dealt a blow with brain tumors. That to me is another whole subject I would like to explore!
    Hope you have a good weekend. Alesia

  4. I have been helping my very sick wife recover from a strange virus so not much time to post. Going to a wedding next week in North Dakota (in February for goodness sake). Still thinking though. Posting again very soon.

  5. So sorry to hear your wife has been sick. Healing thoughts coming your way. A wedding in ND in February sounds tormenting!

  6. So I said when I had a bit more time I’d respond to your comment. First, sorry you have been under the weather. Get well soon! The point I am getting at is simply this. Reliance on the very texts that foster a sense of belief as a basis for rationalizing that belief is not evidence at all. While I do not doubt that there are historical references in the texts of both the Torah and the Christian scriptures, the fact that stories contain historical “facts” does not make them facts. There is, for example, a great mythology built around George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and while those stories contain a basis in “fact” it does not make them true. George never chopped down a cherry tree as a child, for example. I tend to be skeptical of anyone researching any subject when they have a dog in the fight. I used to tell my research students to analyze the research of others with an eye toward the skeptical. One question I always ask is who funded the research in question. Drug companies are famous for this. They fund research on a new drug and if the findings of the research don’t match their needs they tend to block its publication. The funders of research have a major stake in the outcome of that research. Skepticism is appropriate, no matter who is the researcher because without a healthy dose of skepticism it is easy to pull the wool over one’s eyes. That being said, while it may be true that there is a reference to the “House of David” on some Middle Eastern stella, the reference itself is open to many questions. It is like the discovery of the Ossuary for Jesus’ brother James which caused a big to-do in the religious world several years ago. Too bad the Ossuary was a fake. People are prone to believing without evidence for that belief.
    While you wrote that the Bible was written by men and inspired by God, I ask just who were these men. One of the major contributors to the Hebrew bible was the Priestly class. Biblical scholars examining the original Hebrew have identified at least four contributing authors; the priests being one and identified as the P author. The texts written by P tend to be legalistic and include such things as exactly how much grain and fruit from the harvest must be delivered to the Temple in Jerusalem. Priests have to eat; hardly an inspiration from God. Another example is the research done into the Dead Sea Scrolls. During the first 20 or so years before the 1967 War the Dead Sea Scrolls were in the hands of Christian scholars. Low and behold they found the scrolls to support their own religious beliefs arguing they pointed to a person much like Jesus. After 1967 when Jewish scholars were able to take a look at the scrolls they found that the sect that wrote them focused on particularly Jewish ideas of purity and cleanliness and had little, if anything, to do with the rise of Christianity. I suspect that the truth of this matter lies somewhere in between these two extremes but the fact still remains that the outcome of ‘research’ had more to do with the dog in the fight than with the scrolls themselves.
    I do not disagree with you that there is much that can be learned from religious texts. Morals and ethics, once one strip away the rules about stoning and other forms of corporal punishment. Much can be learned about how to relate to strangers among us by simply adopting the idea that we have an ethical obligation to care for the widow, orphan and stranger, those less fortunate than we are. Yet, the most religious among us spew hate and bigotry like there is something honorable about it. What do they learn from reading religious texts?
    When you write “It is a mystery that I do not understand,” you are not alone. My friend and teacher, Rabbi Mendel, argues that we are not supposed to understand that which is written. It requires nothing more than belief, a willingness to accept something that is, in fact, mysterious. We get into heated disputes over this concept and still we learn from each other. My point is that for me, and only for me, belief is simply not enough. My own skepticism refuses to allow me to believe in something that is unknowable because it portends to explain that which is unexplainable. I would rather not ask questions that have no rational answers and concentrate on asking questions that may have an answer in evidence and the pragmatic exploration and analysis of that evidence.
    Wow, this is longer than I planned to comment. I guess I’ll do anything to take my mind off of the below zero temperatures in Grand Forks. By the way, my wife is much better. Some kind of crazy virus got her and it was having nothing but fun with her whole body. Glad she is getting better.

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