The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Naturalism and Purpose: Rumours of them being seen together are false


According to atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins in his work Growing up in the Universe, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA … That is exactly what we are here for.”

In the minds of some, perhaps most, this robs human beings of purpose. I want to add my two cents by saying that from a purely naturalistic point of view, Dawkins is trying to claw back more purpose than he is entitled to. In fact, if he is right, species do not evolve for the purpose of making more copies of their DNA. They do not evolve for any purpose whatsoever. Allow me to elaborate, drawing on the work of Alvin Plantinga and throwing my own two cents in every now and then.

To say that something has a proper function is equivalent to saying that there is a way that this thing is meant (dare we say intended?) to function. In the mid-twentieth century Errol Harris outlined the two major objections to explaining physical processes with any appeal to teleology or goal orientation:

First, it is maintained, teleology is supposed to be the causal operation in the present of future events. A teleological process is one that is purposive and seeks a goal, so that every event in it must be explained by reference to this goal, which determines the course of the whole process. Now it is held to be impossible to understand how a future event (the goal) can causally influence an event that precedes it, and teleological explanation is therefore explanation obscuri per obscurius. The case of human action is understandable, so it is alleged, in terms of consciousness and intention. We are aware of our purposes and aim at them consciously, so our actions are caused not by a future event, but by our present awareness and the intention to act which we consciously form. But, it is argued, teleological explanation in other cases, where consciousness may not be presumed, cannot be justified. This is the second main objection. Human action and possibly that of some higher vertebrates may be explicable in terms of consciousness, but in the case of invertebrates and lower species such explanation becomes highly dubious. When we turn to physiological processes, such as those of metabolism or the process of morphogenesis and phylogenesis, any account presuming conscious direction is plainly inadmissible and teleological explanation is ruled out altogether. [i]

Writing slightly later, Francisco Ayala exhibits the tendency to switch without differentiation between genuine forward-looking teleology in scientific explanation and the backward looking conduciveness of certain inherited traits in the evolutionary process:

Darwin recognized, and accepted without reservation, that organisms are adapted to their environments, and that their parts are adapted to the functions they serve. Fish are adapted to live in water, the hand of man is made for grasping, and the eye is made to see. Darwin accepted the facts of adaptation, and then provided a natural explanation for the facts. One of his greatest accomplishments was to bring the teleological aspects of nature into the realm of science. He substituted a scientific teleology for a theological one. The teleology of nature could now be explained, at least in principle, as the result of natural laws manifested in natural processes, without recourse to an external Creator or to spiritual or nonmaterial forces. At that point biology came into maturity as a science. [ii]

Notice the way in which Ayala, unfortunately, draws no distinction between being suitably adapted for survival in a given setting, and having a certain feature for a certain purpose. The fact that fish are adapted to live in water is set next to the facts that “the hand of man is made for grasping, and the eye is made to see,” as though nothing different were being said, even on a semantic level, in each case. No one would doubt that Darwin gave an account of the former occurring, and organisms that did not adapt in the best way for the purposes of surviving in the environment in which they lived stood a lower chance of surviving than those whose adaptations turned out to be more conducive to survival. But saying that something is “well adapted to survive” is very different from saying that something “adapted to survive.” In the former description, the adaptation was accidental, and the survival appropriateness of the adaptation was determined after the fact. In the latter, the adaptation took place for the purpose of surviving. To speak as Ayala did then is not at all to speak of a natural teleology as a replacement of a theological one. It is simply to fail to distinguish between fortunate adaptation and teleological adaptation.

More recent Darwinist writers have underlined the fact that naturalism point blank rules out the possibility of genuine teleology. In urging the scientific community to keep “creationism out of the classroom,” Anna Marie Gillis tells us that “What makes Darwin’s thinking such a challenge is he refuted purpose and teleology.” [iii] It seems clear that by “refuted” Gillis means “denied.” [iv] The message here is that in order to keep religious mumbo-jumbo out of classrooms, evolution must be taught with no concept of teleology.
If Dawkins is right about naturalism, then he’s wrong about purpose, and we did not evolve to do anything, serve any end, meet any purpose, to be good at anything at all (and nor, for that matter, did any of our bits and pieces).

i. Errol E. Harris, “Teleology and Teleological Explanation,” The Journal of Philosophy 57:1 (1959), 6-7.

ii. Francisco Ayala, “Teleological Explanation Is in Evolutionary Biology,” Philosophy of Science 37:1 (1970), 2.

iii. Anna Marie Gillis, “Keeping Creationism Out Of the Classroom,” Bioscience 44:10 (1994), 652.

iv. This, at least, is a more charitable reading or what Gillis meant. If she meant that Darwin demonstrated that there in fact was no teleology involved in adaptation, she was mistaken, since it is difficult to conceive of how such a demonstration might be made.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. Hi Glenn. Interesting post. Hey this doesn’t have too much to do with the above post ( perhaps a little) but I was wondering if you have read the book ‘God, Actually’ by by Roy Williams.

    I have just finished and will write a brief and VERY basic review on my site over the next couple of days.

    Would be interested in your views on the book or the author as this is an area you seem to be interested in.



  2. Hey Banbers, no I haven’t heard of the author or the book. Any good?

  3. The book is great, especially for simple ones like me.

    I have just done a review on my site and here is the link to his

    I was particularly moved by the LOVE chapter. For me it highlighted why we have so many problems in todays world.

  4. I’ve just linked to this old post from Facebook. There may be some interest in it due to the recent debate between William Lane Craig and Francisco Ayala on intelligent design.

  5. Bob

    Something I found that may be of interest in the topic of Atheism, this one is about First Principles:

    “In other words, Naturalism and Materialism declare that intuition and other transcendences cannot exist, yet the basis for Naturalism and Materialism is itself necessarily intuitive and transcendent.

    So Naturalism and Materialism deny their own foundational validity, and thus are paradoxical (violate the Principle of Non-Contradiction), and so are neither coherent nor valid.

    This paradox is fatal, rationally speaking, for Naturalism and Materialism, but not for Empiricism, because Empiricism has voluntarily chosen to limit its range of investigation, and, in theory any way, does not say anything at all about transcendences or about value systems, except that they are out of the range of the testability and verification constraints placed upon Empirical processes. (Empiricism is a process, not a worldview or value system).

    In this manner Empiricism retains its validity as a process for obtaining information about physical reality. Naturalism and Materialism are seen to be invalid, non-coherent worldviews, spun off from Empiricism, but no longer identical to it.”

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