One often hears it said that modern science has adopted a methodology that takes no account of teleology and final causation. This is taken to be a point against teleology by some and against modern science by others.

It is true that Bacon, Descartes, and many others who have philosophized about (or on the basis of) modern science have had little use for final causes. However, it is not clear to me that modern science itself is really quite so blind to teleology. One has to distinguish, of course, among various kinds of “finality”. There is finality in the sense of conscious purpose or intention in the mind of the Designer and Creator. And there is a finality that is immanent in created things themselves. This latter can be further distinguished into extrinsic and intrinsic finality. If one says that small mammals serve to keep owls fed, that is extrinsic finality. If one says that eyes are for seeing, that is intrinsic finality.

If we ask whether the order of nature reveals an intention in the mind of God, we will get no answer from science. Science simply prescinds from the question. It is the task of the scientist to investigate the order of nature, and of the philosopher to argue for a creative intelligence that lies behind that order. But modern science need not be regarded as the enemy of such arguments; on the contrary, to the extent that science reveals ever more fully and clearly the order of nature, it furnishes materials for strengthening them.

As for the finality (intrinsic and extrinsic) immanent in the natural world, science certainly recognizes and studies it. I don’t believe any reasonable biologist—or even unreasonable ones, like Richard Dawkins—would deny that “eyes are for seeing”. I don’t know Dawkins’ views on sex (and don’t want to), but any Darwinist would be inconsistent and a fool to deny that sex is for reproduction, just as the immune system is for fighting off disease, and the heart is for pumping blood. No one would deny that such statements of “intrinsic finality” are part of modern science and its way of understanding the world. And the ecologist certainly studies the interdependence of various types of living things, such as owls and mammals, and so concerns himself as a scientist with extrinsic finality.

Things get a little trickier when it comes to inanimate matter. It is not clear that a lump of copper or an asteroid is “for” something in the same way that an eye is for seeing. The case for intrinsic finality is much harder to make here than in biology. This may or may not create a problem for traditional Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy, but it is not a problem for science or (as far as I can tell) religion. Intrinsic finality in living things, specifically human beings, is crucial for a sound theological anthropology and moral philosophy. But why does intrinsic finality in copper or asteroids matter to religion?

The scientific study of inanimate things has gotten along very well without thinking about their intrinsic finality. Four hundred years of experience has shown that that kind of teleology is simply useless to science. However, that statement perhaps needs to be qualified. While physics doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) care about the intrinsic finality of inanimate things , like lumps of copper, it does think about finality in understanding processes .

If one wants to know what will happen if a cup of hot coffee is left standing for a while, it is not necessary to calculate the chain of efficient causes involving all the individual molecules whacking into each other. One knows, on general thermodynamic principles, that the coffee will end up at room temperature. One also finds that kind of finalistic thinking in what is called the “Principle of Least Action”, which is the most powerful, profound, and beautiful way of formulating the laws of classical (i.e. non-quantum) physics. That principle says that any system will go from its initial configuration to its final one by that sequence of intermediate configurations (i.e. by that “path”, “trajectory”, or “history”) that minimizes a certain quantity called “the action”. And the most elegant way of formulating quantum physics is by a generalization of the Action Principle that is called the “Path Integral formulation”. It is as though the system knows where it is headed and takes the optimum way to get there. (However, one should not read too much into the word optimum here.)

To say that modern science has limited itself by neglecting final causation is an oversimplification, it seems to me, that is not quite fair to modern science.

(Click here to email the author about this item. Stephen Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol Research Institute of the University of Delaware, and a member of the editorial board of F IRST T HINGS .)


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Articles by Stephen M. Barr

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