Nature, Life, and Teleology

By Possenti, Vittorio | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Nature, Life, and Teleology


Possenti, Vittorio, The Review of Metaphysics


ONE OBSERVATION FORCES ITSELF UPON US AT THE OUTSET. It is just as hard to think about the problem of life today as it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. If we observe the state of the sciences, we are led to the conviction that an important issue still remains open: to develop a philosophy of life and the organism that is adequate to the level of biological discoveries. Our most urgent need in the dialogue among science, philosophy, and theology does not arise, as it has happened for centuries, from physics and cosmology but from the life sciences, notably biology and genetics. This is a necessity on which thinkers of different schools, such as Hans Jonas and John Polkinghorne, (1) are agreed. Physics is no longer the guiding science, or the sole guiding science: its place has been taken by biology, and it is high time that philosophy and theology turned to address the issues it raises, without entrusting the realm of nature and life solely to the sciences. While there is still a rich crop of studies about the Big Bang theory and scientific cosmology in general, little has been written on philosophical biology, where the presence of the theologians has been exiguous. One may wonder why this should be so: perhaps because the Big Bang theory seems allusively to evoke the truth of the creation, though a more careful consideration of this scientific theory, rather controversial and highly speculative, shows that it has nothing to do with the theme of creation, as it deals only with the cosmic becoming: as such it is unable to formulate statements on what transcends becoming and on creation understood as the total position in being of all things. But one may also conjecture that this insufficient interest in biology stems from the difficult problem of teleology and, more generally, from the reductionist attitude frequently displayed by scientists when they pass beyond their own field of research and formulate hypotheses and theories with universal implications, as they are prompted by an unbridled enthusiasm which has proved ill-advised on other occasions in the past.

Perhaps we can reconstruct a parallel between the post-Newtonians' enthusiasm for mechanicalism and the passion of biologists today for biology and genetics. The former, intoxicated by the spectacular conquests of Newtonian physics, claimed that man was no more than a machine, no doubt highly complex and delicate, but a machine all the same. A similar intellectual euphoria now seems to have infected certain biologists, over-eager to think of man as merely a biological machine equipped for survival.

The difficulties of thinking about life are aggravated by the profound shift in perspective brought about by modern scientific cosmology, which has since merely become more acute. This phenomenon could be described as a regression of life due to the enlargement of the universe. Once nearly everything was life; today nearly nothing is: in our universe, enlarged out of all proportion, almost everything is mass, energy, inanimate force. We have passed from the ancient panvitalism to the current situation in which life is rare and improbable in the universe, when precisely it is not fundamentally reduced to nonlife, to mechanically and chemically ordered matter (pan-mechanicalism). One might suppose that this attitude is connected with the immense enlargement of the cosmos due to the doctrine of an expanding universe which was unknown to the ancients: as the dimensions of the cosmos have grown, the biosphere has shrunk proportionately, and it represents a much smaller percentage of the cosmos. Though it has some foundation, this position is not the whole truth since it is also the fruit of the modern tendency to reduce the organic to the inorganic. All this creates a dialectical situation in biology: on the one hand, it is a marginal science since the biosphere forms no more than a tiny part of the universe; on the other, it is central because it deals with what counts most--life, including human life. …

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