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The Taboo of Teleology

In the United States, nearly half of the population believes God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. The creationist view is crazy, but the mechanistic view is barren. In truth, there is no contradiction between an immanent and inseparable cosmic intelligence and evolution.

The idea that a separate ‘Supreme Being’ reached down and placed His special creation, man, on this Earth is patently laughable, but persistently durable. The belief persists because the seeming alternative is unacceptable—that evolution is meaningless, that humans arose from pure chance, and that there is nothing. This is the mechanistic view.

There is another alternative, though it is much subtler and more difficult to grasp than either the creationistic or mechanistic view. It affords the prospect of ending the specious division between religion and science.

Let’s begin with the bare facts. The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, formed out of a condensing cloud of leftover matter in a solar system that’s part of an immense galaxy of billions of stars flaming on, flaming out, or going supernova. Life, whether common or rare in the Milky Way and the cosmos, somehow got started on our watery world, and eventually, through natural selection, produced Homo sapiens along the same lines and through the same principles as all other life.

Beyond that, we’re in uncharted territory, and the great philosophical and spiritual questions remain unanswered. Is there a purpose to human existence? Why are we aware? What is consciousness? Where are we headed? Is there any meaning in the randomness of evolution? What is death, and is there anything beyond it?

There is a prejudice in science against any view of nature, humanity, and God that even hints of teleology. But that word has two meanings–one that’s false on the face of it, another that’s open.

The first meaning to teleology is that there is design, purpose, and finality in nature and evolution, which have an ultimate goal (usually humans). The second meaning, without implying a goal, much less a finality in the world is that there is a directive principle in the universe.

Science does not necessarily imply a mechanistic view, though mechanism prevails at present in science. Science does not preclude spirituality, but mechanism precludes the religious mind. And the religious mind does not imply adherence to belief in a supernatural realm, though most people can’t conceive of one without it.

Irrefutably, there is a direction toward greater complexity in the evolution of life on earth, with the human brain being the most complex organ to have evolved in the approximately three and a half billion years since the first microbes appeared on this planet. The central question is, does directive complexity imply a directive principle?

To get some insight into that question we have to question the place of the brain, and thus the human being, in unfolding creation/destruction. That leads directly to questioning the place of knowledge, and whether there is anything beyond the realm of knowledge.

The brain gathers information and knowledge– observationally, rationally, and empirically through science; or neglectfully, non-rationally, and experientially in unawareness. Ignorance isn’t a lack of rational knowledge and information, but the absence of self-awareness. Thus a person can have both a great deal of knowledge and be very ignorant.

We assume that knowledge is the purpose of the brain, but knowledge, even the most rigorous scientific knowledge, is essentially a tool, having no greater value than any hand-held tool. Like all tools, it can be used for good or ill.

Organized religion has lost its grip on the human mind and heart, while science and technology are ascendant. That leaves a vacuum in the religious impulse, which rationalism and atheism only increase.

A brain that is attentively and deeply silent is not operating in the field of knowledge or experience, memory or association. Beyond all words and description, such a brain comes into contact, and even communes with essences such as death, creation, and love.

This raises a tremendous question. Are brains such as ours, on this planet and any other that life has the right conditions to emerge and enough time to unfold, the intrinsic intent of evolution?

That of course is a teleological question. But dispensing with the prejudice in science against anything that even hints of teleology, the real question is whether one is being anthropomorphic in asking it. Anthropomorphism, like anthropocentrism, means attributing and projecting human characteristics to non-human things, including the universe itself.

I propose that the evolution of brains with minds capable not just of insights but states of insight that exist complete and completely in themselves, is the intrinsic intent within cosmic and planetary evolution.

But our greatest asset—symbolic thought—is also our greatest impediment. We have to learn how to quiet all activity of thought, which includes scientific knowledge, everyday information, experiential memory, as well as theologies, traditions, and methods of meditation.

When the mind-as-thought is not operating, when the brain is attentively still, we can find out for ourselves whether evolution has intelligence without design, order within chaos, direction beyond randomness, and meaning beyond the mind of man.

The human brain, much less humans, isn’t the ‘goal’ of evolution—there is no goal. But there is an infinite wellspring of insight and benediction beyond the human mind. Therefore, imperfectly and without end, brains like ours may be the aim of evolution.

However the mind has to let go of its knowledge and control, its rationality and irrationality, and observe itself into silence. That requires perceiving and understanding the very roots of separation and division as the illusory observer and ‘me.’

Martin LeFevre

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