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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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