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Purpose through Emergent Complexity

hugh murdoch: Theosophy-Science Group Newsletter, May 2004, p4

Teleology Without Teleology: Purpose Through Emergent Complexity is one of a series of essays by various authors in a book entitled: In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being – Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World: Eds. Clayton and Peacocke, (William B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004).

This article is an exciting new approach by Paul Davies in line with the current explosion of interest in attempts to reconcile science and religion, a trend which I believe should be of particular interest to theosophists. There are words here to which we need to pay attention at the outset. I refer to ‘teleology’, ‘panentheism’ and ‘God’. Teleology is defined as ‘the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world’. This has long been a contentious issue. Davies is here proposing a very interesting non-traditional compromise view of teleology, consistent with modern science. Panentheism, deconstructed as pan-en-theism, means literally ‘all in God’. There are many ways of expressing this in religious theory as evidenced by the various essays in this book. In The Mind of God (1990), Davies takes it to mean ‘the universe is part of God but not all of God.’ Another way of putting it is to say that God is both immanent and transcendent, an approach taken by an Eastern Orthodox bishop in the current volume. Another famous statement is: ‘having permeated the universe with one fragment of myself, I remain’. I believe the fundamental concepts of theosophy are panentheistic. Davies’ concept of “teleology without teleology” will appear once we have explored his lead-up to this topic.

The various contributors are all trying to explore the concept of God’s relation to the world from the background of a Christian tradition. In this setting, as in some of his books, e.g. God and the New Physics (1983), Davies seems quite comfortable speaking of God. However, in the final chapter of The Mind of God (1990), he makes it clear that he does not believe in a personal God but would be quite happy with the concept of “an impersonal creative principle” or “ground of being”. This is very close to Blavatsky’s: “Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable Principle”. Theosophists will no doubt read Davies’ use of the term ‘God’ in those terms.

How could God interact with the world?

Before explaining his own view and thus what he means by “teleology without teleology,” Davies categorises various conceptual modes of interaction. Interventionist Divine action would be interaction violating the laws of physics. That is clearly unacceptable. Non-interventionist action could be occasional loading of the quantum dice, in other words, a series of infinitesimal changes within the limit of quantum uncertainty. Indeed Heisenberg who introduced the concept of quantum uncertainty once speculated on this possibility. Davies suggests this is unsatisfactory since too much or too often loading of the ‘quantum dice’ would violate the statistical rules of quantum physics. Another possible metaphor for specific ‘downward causation’ by God could be the mind-body interaction since “we do not yet understand how minds and brains relate to one another”. He says some panentheists appeal to mind-body interaction as an analogy for such downward causation by God.

He then discusses a model of “uniform divine action” as better than both of the above (interventionist and non-interventionist) models by appealing to the important role of selforganising complexity, recognised towards the end of the 20th century. (See for example, the book by Stuart Kauffman: At Home in the Universe — The Search for the Laws of Complexity (1995). Davies explains such a model of uniform Divine action thus: “Laws are chosen because of the inherent self-organising and self-complexifying properties they confer to matter”. He says this is essentially the model he proposed in his book The Cosmic Blueprint, 1988, Simon and Schuster, New York. Indeed The Cosmic Blueprint ends with the words: “The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness – in other words that the universe has organized its self-awareness – is for me powerful evidence that there is ‘something going on’ behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming. Science may well explain all the processes whereby the world evolves its own destiny, but that still leaves room for there to be a meaning behind existence”.

He now wants to add “to God’s initial choice, an emphasis on God’s continuing role of creating the universe at each moment, though without in any way bringing about particular events which nature ‘on its own’ would not have produced”. This in effect is his interpretation of panentheism.

“God need never suspend, manipulate, bend, or violate God’s own laws since their statistical character allows for the action of divine – and perhaps human – agency. There are no miracles, save for the miracle of existence itself. God does not exercise an overbearing influence on the evolution of the universe, thus reducing it to a pointless charade. There is room for human freedom, and room for inanimate systems to explore unforseen pathways into the future. A third advantage of this approach is that it enables one to discuss a concept of design in nature that is impervious to a Darwinian-style rebuttal”.

Davies raises the question whether the fundamental laws might have been otherwise and suggests that the anthropic principle says ‘no’ unless we want to invoke multiple universes with randomised sets of laws. This he, I believe rightly, rejects on several grounds as unscientific. The manner in which organised complexity arises from the fundamental laws of physics is tricky. An analogy cited is the game of chess where the rules of the game permit an enormous range of outcomes consistent with the laws.

“A key concept in the … divine selection of laws is that the laws themselves are, in a certain sense, timeless and eternal. To appropriate the wisdom of Augustine, God does not act within a pre-existing and endless time. … God acts to create all that is, including space, time, and the laws of nature, and thus these laws are, in this sense, eternal, too. Indeed one of the purposes in choosing these laws is that they permit the universe – including space and time — to originate spontaneously “from nothing” in a lawlike manner without the need for further divine action. Thus the eternal selector God is, in this function at least, outside of time altogether. However, it is important to stress that “creation” is not a once and for all act at the big bang but ongoing and inherent in nature itself. Nature is highly creative through time in ways that go beyond the mere genetic evolution of complexity. If God sustains the continually creative universe through time, then in this sense, God possesses a temporal as well as atemporal aspect”.

Teleology Without Teleology

A crucial feature is that the specific amalgam of chance and necessity incredibly conspire to produce “emergent lawlike behaviour at the higher levels of complexity”. Davies emphasises the word ‘incredibly’. It is truly remarkable that the laws of complexity which introduce variety, not merely at the level of quantum uncertainty but at the macroscopic level, arise naturally from the fundamental laws of physics but have to be ‘discovered’ rather than being logically derivable from the physical laws. This means that God (or whatever power or principle we may like to substitute) can arrange for the broad outline of evolution with a wide range of possible detailed outcomes without interfering along the way. Davies sums this up neatly in the following statement of what he means by ‘teleology without teleology’.

“In the earlier teleological schemes of pre-Darwinian Christianity, God directly selected a final outcome (e.g. the existence of “Man”) and simply engineered the end product by supernatural manipulation. By contrast, the concept I am discussing is “teleology without teleology”. God selects very special laws that guarantee a trend toward greater richness, diversity and complexity through spontaneous self-organisation, but the final outcome in all its details is left to chance. The creativity of nature mimics pre-Darwinian teleology, but does not require violation or suspension of physical laws. Nature behaves as if it had specific pre-ordained goals – it exhibits purposelike qualities. … The general trend of matter-mind-culture is written into the laws of nature at a fundamental level”.

How can we test the inevitability of the evolution from a simple beginning, of life, consciousness and culture? Davies argues that the test is that these should be universal phenomena. Hence his great interest in the search for life elsewhere. Davies and Conway Morris have much in common — ‘inevitable humans’ but Davies fervently hopes we are not in ‘a lonely universe’. The biologist is perhaps more conscious of the seeming improbability of the origin of life, whereas the cosmologist is more aware of the vastness of the universe and hence the large number of the potential life-supporting planets, even if the proportion of stars with a suitable planet is small.

How Does This Fit With Darwinism?

Davies poses this question in his final section. He says biologists have already incorporated the concept of self-organisation. “Although genes carry information only about the linear sequence (‘primary structure’) of amino acids in a protein or enzyme, the secondary, tertiary and quaternary structures … are examples of self-organisation. … Does the role of genetics in helping to determine the development of the structure of a cell, along with the laws of physics and random variables, provide a case in which a term like ‘supervised self-organisation’ is appropriate?”

He goes on: “To summarise my position, we may explain the appearance of goal-oriented design in nature without miracles or supernatural tinkering. Instead, I appeal to the outworking of peculiarly creative and felicitous laws selected for these very purposes. Although the general trend of this process is basic to the laws, the actual details of evolution are left to the vagaries of chance”. He acknowledges that scientists could shrug off his ideas with: “That’s just the way the world is. Isn’t it amazing but I’ll simply accept it as a brute fact.” His three main contentions can be simplified as 1: God can be considered logically prior to the universe and responsible for the laws that allow the emergence of self-organising complexity. 2: The latter is inconsistent with “interventionist” divine action, but can accommodate a panentheistic view. Finally:

“The activity of complex processes eventually produces agents who are able to ‘glimpse the mind of God’, comprehending (at least in part) the underlying laws of the universe. Creation ‘in the beginning’ and creation through self-organising complexity may therefore be regarded as merely two aspects of a single divine creativity”.


Davies tends to tailor his presentation to some extent to suit his audience or the milieu in which he is writing or speaking. That is both natural and appropriate in the context of the present book. However, after his strong rejection of a designer God as ridiculous in a public symposium by a panel of scientists on the theme “Is the Universe Made for life?” at the Seymour Centre at Sydney University in July 2002, I must admit that I was somewhat surprised at the ease with which he speaks here of God. Of course the clarity and originality of the ideas of Davies’ presentation is more important than the terminology. Yet, while greatly appreciating all that he says, I prefer the concept of Fundamental Principle and I also suggest that the choice is in fact no choice, with the universal laws being inherent in that Fundamental Reality. In the spirit of Spinoza, both God and the Laws exist necessarily and are in essence, indistinguishable.

Comment on an essay by Paul Davies


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