Pay attention to teleological explanations of evolution


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Yesterday I read an excellent piece on philosophy of science in Robert Pirsig’s Lila, the book he wrote to follow Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Look for it on pages 140-144 or so. I won’t try to summarize the entire argument here. His remarks comprehend philosophy of science, theology, chemistry and molecular biology, among other things. Totally Pirsig-like, it takes up the question of teleology, straight on. No one in academics does that!

How do you know you have entered the forbidden world of teleology? When Pirsig considers the phrase survival of the fittest, he asks, fit for what? If you answer fit for survival, you have a theory of evolution whose central principle reduces to survival of the survivors. Pirsig argues evolution – to maintain logical coherence – must have some purpose beyond survival. That argument takes you straight to a moral or spiritual force that lies beyond material forces.

Pirsig calls that moral or spiritual force Dynamic Quality. It is the source of life. It explains things that traditional principles of science, based on static quality, do not. To take a crude example of the difference between static quality and Dynamic Quality, Pirsig proposes we set a professor of chemistry out on a rock in the desert. We all know that in a fairly short time, all the water in the professor of chemistry will evaporate, leaving a few lifeless compounds behind on the rock.

Traditional science, based on properties of molecules and the way they interact, can readily explain the process of evaporation and resulting death, but it cannot well explain how – or more specifically, why – evolution arrived at an organism that ticks along so well in the face of so many forces able to check its life-preserving mechanisms. Pirsig takes on this question. He does so with a sound grasp of evolutionary principles as they affect molecules, and with a sound grasp of how non-Western cultures think about similar questions.

Native American conceptions of the natural and supernatural worlds do not pay particular attention to Western science. Their outlook sees an invisible, life-giving force as an explanation for all we do see. To use Pirsig’s language, Dynamic Quality lies at the center of the culture’s world view. Native American culture regards supernatural forces as first causes – the same factors ruled out as explanatory factors in Western science. If you rule out moral and spiritual forces in your explanations of what you see in the natural world, you also rule out teleology. You rule out the idea that life evolves toward something, that it has a purpose, and that forces we cannot see or explain impel life toward that better state.

So let me end with a brief story from Lila. An American walks along a road with a Native American. They see a dog near the road. The American asks, “What kind of dog is that?” The Native American pauses for a moment, then replies, “That’s a good dog.” Of course the westerner did not expect that answer! The American expected an answer that referred to the dog’s pedigree.

Pirsig reflects about why the American’s friend gave an answer like that. The main reflection is that the Native American does not even use the word good as an adjective, though he does use it as a descriptor in this case. In the Native American’s world view, good is a noun, not an adjective. He uses it the way a westerner would say the Good, which is another word for Dynamic Quality. Pirsig carefully avoids equating Dynamic Quality with God, but a theologian would have no trouble doing so.

Native Americans, in popular western literature, call Dynamic Quality the Great Spirit. In that sense, the dog partakes of all living things, the Good that creates everything around us. The Great Spirit, always in motion, prevents the good things it has created from degenerating into a collection of compounds. Pirsig, who studied chemistry before he studied philosophy or Native American culture, explains the operations of Dynamic Quality in light of evolutionary processes at the molecular level. You will not find a better argument for the ‘doctrine of design and purpose in the material world’, which is the theologian’s definition of teleology.

Related book

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals