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A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch

Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In this phase of human history there is widespread conflict between our conception of ourselves and our conception of the world. We see ourselves as beings that are conscious, that are rational, have free will and are purposive. But we see the world as consisting of mindless, meaningless, totally determined physical bits and pieces that are non-purposive. A society that lives with this dichotomy is operating out of a profound error that is destroying much that is worthwhile both in ourselves and in the world.

The general picture most of us have about the world is derived from Newton’s mechanics of the seventeenth century. The man in the street, whether he knows it or not, still lives in Newton’s world. A lot has changed since then, but the general picture for most of us hasn’t. In classical Newtonian mechanics, once the initial conditions and the force laws are given, everything is calculable for ever before and after. The system is governed completely by the laws of mechanics and of conservation of energy. It is totally determined. It has no freedom.

By contrast, any human situation is quite different. Imagine a city street in which pedestrians and traffic are milling around. The flows of traffic and the movements of any pedestrian cannot be predicted using the laws of mechanics. If a pedestrian tries to cross the road against the traffic lights he may meet an oncoming vehicle; the driver applies brakes and there is an accident. Newton’s laws are no help at all in describing that system. The situation is utterly dependent upon the decision of the pedestrian to cross the street at the wrong time and the decision of the driver to try to stop his vehicle. Planets, solar systems, atoms and molecules seem helpless slaves to the forces that push them around. Human beings are also pushed around. But most of us recognize something else in ourselves -- some degree of freedom to choose what we do. Purposes determine a great deal about our lives.

Although this example has a modern ring to it, there is nothing really new about the problem it presents, which is: How is it that freedom and purpose that determine so much about us arise in a world that seems to run entirely on mechanical laws? The issue of two kinds of cause, mechanical ones and purposive ones, was set before his fellow Athenians by Socrates in 399 BC. as he sat in prison contemplating his death. Today it is the central issue in the battle between science and religion. It is also the central issue in the relationship of modern human beings to their environment. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of the problems of the modern world revolve around this dichotomy between ourselves and the world.

Some people have resolved the dichotomy by contending that what we think is our freedom to choose different purposes is a gigantic illusion. Our destiny is determined as much as that of the solar system or the atoms that compose it. We are cogs in a mechanical universe. If we think like that it logically follows that we can legitimately treat other people as cogs in a machine. To do that is to manipulate people. Bertrand Russell (1968) warned against the dangers of encouraging people to see themselves and others as cogs in a machine-like world. He suggested this had already reached the point where people might be tempted to pray like cogs:

Almighty and most merciful Machine, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost screws; we have put in those nuts which we ought not to have put in, and we have left out those nuts which we ought to have put in, and there is no cogginess in us. (pp. 57-8)

The picture of the universe as a gigantic contrivance and ourselves as small contrivances or machines is now beleaguered on several fronts. It is challenged by modern physics, modern biology and by frontier thinking in theology and philosophy. But the news has not yet reached the headlines. One objective of this book is to help to put it there. It could change our view of ourselves and the world and the way we live in the world.

The science and the philosophy that have promoted the view of a largely mechanistic man in a completely mechanistic universe are today in the same predicament as Baron Munchhausen’s horse. During a wintry ride through Poland. Munchhausen was overtaken by darkness on a desolate snowy expanse. After tying his horse to what appeared to be a tree stump, he fell asleep in the snow drifts. The next morning Munchhausen was astonished to awaken in a churchyard and to discover his horse hanging from the top of a steeple. The snow, which had covered all but the church spire, had melted, gently lowering the baron to the ground but leaving his mount suspended precariously from the steeple. Science and philosophy and a deal of Christian theology were once securely tethered to the sturdy edifice of Newtonian mechanics. The universe was a machine. God, if God existed, was the mechanic who made the machine. God operated by the mechanical means of pushing things around through miracle and catastrophe. What was once thought to be solid ground has melted away, leaving these concepts dangling precariously above the abyss.

The mechanical images no longer fit. They are giving way to quite a different image of the universe and ourselves. This discovery is being made simultaneously by a science, a philosophy and a theology as yet little known. Its new images are no longer mechanical: they are organic and ecological. The universe turns out to be less like a machine and more like a life. This constitutes a new revolution in science, philosophy and theology in our time.

The name of this way of thinking, which provides the framework of this book, is process thought. The greatest exponent of this position is Alfred North Whitehead (1861- 1947), who is probably the greatest polymath of this century. For most of his life he was a mathematician, teaching first at Cambridge University where one of his students was Bertrand Russell. Later he was Professor of Mathematics in the University of London. It was there that he collaborated with Bertrand Russell for ten years to produce Principia Mathematica, a treatise on symbolic logic. At the age of sixty Whitehead moved across the Atlantic to accept an invitation to become a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his life. From then onwards the thoughts of these two men diverged. Russell became a leading exponent of a materialistic philosophy, yet sensitive to human values. Whitehead rejected materialism and the dominant interpretation of science which was mechanism for what he called an organic view of the universe. Russell said that either life is matter-like or matter is life-like and chose the former, while Whitehead chose the latter. Whitehead introduced Russell at a lecture at Harvard as follows: ‘Bertie says that I am muddle-headed. But I think that he is simpleminded.’ In quoting this remark Hartshorne (1970a) says:

Here, in unsurpassably succinct form, is one of the great contrasts between philosophers. There are those who would be clear (and even neat and witty) at almost any cost, including that of vastly over-simplifying things. There are those who would above all be adequate to the richness and many-sidedness of reality, even if they cannot always be neat and clear in their account of it. (p. 69)

From time to time in this book the contrast between these two positions becomes apparent.

For Whitehead, the universe is not made of bits of stuff that can be understood as particles or atoms. The entities that make up the universe, from protons to people, are events or processes. Hence the title of his greatest work, Process and Reality. Far from thinking of billiard balls as symbols of reality, Whitehead takes human experience as the event or process that points to the nature of all individual entities, from protons to people. Or, as Cobb and Griffin (1976) say: ‘Process philosophy sees human experience as a high-level exemplification of reality in general’ (p. 13). All individual entities such as protons and atoms resemble human experience in the sense of taking account of their environment without being totally determined by it. All have subjectivity and responsiveness. Their response is purposive, even if unconsciously so. This is their self-determination.

What I have called ‘taking account of’ can also be called, more technically, an ‘internal relation’. Most of Western thought about relations has focused on ‘external’ relations. A relation is external when it does not affect the nature of the things related. For example, a pen lying on the table is thought to be unaffected by that location. It is thought to be the same, unchanged pen when I pick it up. The relations to the table and to my hand are changed, but the pen is not. An ‘internal’ relation is different. It is part of the entity that is related. For example, my seeing the pen is part of my experience now. If I were not seeing the pen, the experience would be different. Hence, my relation to the pen is internal to my experience. Since the pen is not significantly affected, we can say that the relation is external to the pen.

Whitehead thought that internal relations are of primary importance in the world. They are constitutive of all the truly individual entities that make up the world. These are all momentary-unit events or, in Whitehead’s technical language, ‘actual occasions’ or ‘occasions of experience’. At the molecular level there are such actual occasions moment by moment in the molecules of the pen. But the pen as a whole is an aggregate of such occasions, so that the receptivity and activity that take place at the molecular level do not appear. The pen seems to have only external relations to its environment. On the other hand, an electron is a succession of actual occasions, and so is the flow of experience that can be identified as a human person.

Each occasion, each succession of occasions, that constitute each individual entity can be thought of as a minute organism. Each organism is internally related to other such organisms. This binds them together in larger organisms such as animals, and since these are internally related to one another as well, larger groupings too have an organic character. It is obvious why Whitehead called his philosophy the philosophy of organism. Biology, he said, was the study of large organisms and physics was the study of small organisms.

I have introduced here more of Whitehead’s technical terms than I use in the rest of this book, and henceforth I use only the term individual entity to refer to the truly individual entities such as protons and people. What are not individual entities are assemblages of these and are called aggregates.

Because of his emphasis on internal relations as constitutive of all individual entities in the universe, Whitehead is the ecological philosopher par excellence. We and all individual entities are literally ‘members one of another’. This makes his philosophy ever more relevant to our day.

Whitehead believed that this view of reality made sense of relativity theory, quantum mechanics and the theory of biological evolution as well as human social phenomena. It illuminated the mind -- body problem, the evolution of the living from so-called non-living, the nature of time, the relations of God and the world and many other issues.

This is a bad time for polymaths -- those who attempt to embrace all reality and delete the boundaries between disciplines. There are many reasons for this. One is the skepticism of all philosophy and all religion. Another is the belief by experts and technocrats that all the problems of the world will be solved by science and technology; we are still in the grip of the modern worldview. But Whitehead’s approach is no mere flight of fancy into the stratosphere of thought. ‘The true nature of discovery,’ he said, ‘is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.’ (1978 p. 5). The adequacy of this view, as of any other, depends upon the extent to which it provides a comprehensive interpretation of things.

There are many references in this book to the writings of Charles Hartshorne. He was an assistant of Whitehead at Harvard, since when he has become the leading process philosopher. I became familiar with Hartshorne’s work through one of my first teachers, Professor W. E. Agar, Professor of Zoology in the University of Melbourne, who had written a book (Agar 1943) relating his understanding of biology and Whitehead’s philosophy. In addition to advising me to read Whitehead he urged me to read as much of Hartshorne as I could. That led eventually to my enjoying a lifelong friendship with Professor Hartshorne both in the U.S.A. and on his visits to Australia. His seminal contribution to process philosophy is commemorated in the twentieth volume of The Library of Living Philosophers, which is devoted to his thought (Hahn 1990).

The application of process thought to theology is known as process theology. Whitehead taught that just as all the minute momentary organisms, or actual occasions, are internally related to others, so also God is internally related to the world and the world is internally related to God. Indeed, it is God’s presence in the occasion that enables it to be something more than the determined outcome of the past. It is God’s presence that gives it the possibility of free responsiveness without determining just what the response will be. It is God’s presence that introduces life. In a very important sense God is the Life of the world.

God, for process theology, is not the external maker of the world. God is, instead, the Spirit that breathes life into the creatures and calls the higher organism to the more abundant life of love. There is no compulsion or control here, only gift and persuasion. God is not before all creation but with all creation. Process theology is thus a thoroughgoing incarnational theology standing in strong contrast to the triumphalist, dualistic, monarchical and patriarchal God of much classical theology. Its central affirmation can be found in biblical thought and in the meeting of biblical with Greek thought, as in the writings of the early Christian fathers. And, as with the thought of many of these early innovators, it is a developing theology. It recognizes that a living vital religion cannot remain static. It has to grow, just as science has to grow. Today growing points are along the frontiers of modern science, in relation to other religions and to the economic and political problems of our time.

A leading exponent of process theology is a nonpareil of theology today, John Cobb, to whom this book is dedicated. To him I owe a debt of friendship and a dialogue across the years which has enabled me to see what I did not see before, to find the world a richer place and to invest the word God with a new depth of meaning. Recently Professor Cobb (1985) wrote:

Process theology has taken as its situation the decline of credibility of Christian belief in the modern world. It has concluded that much of this loss has been due to formulations of faith that are not worthy of credence, and it has undertaken to provide more credible statements of what the Christian believes. This is not a mere game. There are millions of people who have rejected the Christian faith because of its incredibility, and the doubt and confusion of those who remain are often painful. Often the pain that is addressed is that of process theologians themselves. (p. 128)

As a teacher for most of my life I know the pain of the youth who discovers that the simplistic formulations of the faith into which he or she was initiated are no longer credible. The serious students I have known want to experience life in its fullness and seek an understanding of that experience. They are not finding it in the formulations of tradition. They find, instead, the world produced by the older notion of the credible is in shambles, intellectually, politically, socially and ecologically. Some are discovering there are alternative ways of expressing the depth of human experience and the relation of God to life. When depth of experience and depth of meaning go hand in hand a new vividness is added to experience which T. S. Eliot expressed thus:

We had the experience but missed the meaning.
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In different form.

I am not a materialist. The prime reason is that I have had experiences which materialism cannot explain. Secondly, I know too much about matter from modern physics to be a materialist. Thirdly, as a biologist I have come to realize that the urge to live is as basic to life as are DNA molecules. I recognize it in myself and fellow humans, I recognize it also in the rest of the individual entities of creation. Because I find materialism incredible I look for an alternative view that will be true to my profoundest feelings and to the understanding I find from modern science.

The notion of, and the need for, integrity is the root meaning of the word religion -- religare, to bind together. As the chasm between our inner intentions and Outer acts, our pretensions and our practice, deepens, so does our hunger for wholeness. And wholeness includes a sense of at-one-ment with ourselves and the rest of the universe. When personal integrity falls apart, we become vulnerable to whatever solution is presented to us by countless sects and movements that parade their wares. The principal reason why people turn to astrology and kindred superstitions is that they lack in their own lives spiritual resources to cope with serious personal problems. Some become fanatics of religion, obsessed by what I heard the German novelist Gunter Grass describe as ‘religious dementia’. Others become anti-religious.

Today I sense a deep need for a coherent faith that can meet our deep need for integrity of mind, spirit and body and that relates deeply to the new meanings being discovered by science and other aspects of culture. My hope is that this book may contribute to that quest.

The viewpoint of this book accords with what is becoming known as a postmodern worldview in the sense used by Griffin (1988). The term itself, as Griffin points out, witnesses to a growing dissatisfaction with modernity and to the sense that the modern age has not only had a beginning but can have an end as well. Postmodernism challenges modernism which can be said to have begun with seventeenth-century mechanism, petrified with eighteenth-century rationalism, nineteenth-century positivism and twentieth-century nihilism. As contrasted with the modern worldview which is sustained more by habit than conviction and which has promoted ecological despoliation, militarism, anti-feminism and disciplinary fragmentation, the postmodern worldview is postmechanistic and ecological in its view of nature, postreductionist in its view of science, postanthropocentric in its view of ethics and economics, postdiscipline in relation to knowledge and postpatriarchal and postsexist in relation to society. Postmodernism is not a call back to the premodern but a creative synthesis of the best of the modern, premodern and new concepts in the forefront of holistic thinking.

More specifically the vision of this book is what Cobb (1988) has called a postmodern ecological worldview. The word ‘ecological’ is added because of the emphasis on relationships in the development of postmodern thought that has been influenced by process philosophy and in particular the thought of A.N. Whitehead. As Cobb points out there is only one other ecological worldview and that is deep ecology, based on the writings of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1989)

The central symbol of ecological thinking in this book is purpose. It has become the central problem for contemporary thought because of the mismatch in modernism between how we think of ourselves and how we think and act in relation to the rest of the world. The book commences with purpose in human life. Without purpose our lives wither. It proceeds to ask the question of whether purpose has any meaning in nonhuman life. If not there is a profound gap between ourselves and the rest of nature. Finding purpose in nature we proceed to the question as to whether life is an exception in the universe. Is the universe machinery and nothing else? If that is the case there is a profound gap between all life and the universe from which it has sprung. Finding purpose pervasive throughout the individual entities of the universe, we ask what permanent value has the whole of the evolution of the cosmos from cosmic evolution through biological evolution to social evolution. The question forces itself upon us because of the inevitable eventual demise of our planet and the universe as we know it. There are only two answers to this question. Either we and the rest of the creation have no permanent value or else we may say that there is a cosmic life, a divine life, able to appropriate and retain as experiences in its life our lesser lives and that of other individuals of creation. Either we and the rest live for what transcends ourselves or we live without ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose. The final chapters are concerned with the implications of this postmodern ecological worldview for society today. The reformation of modernism into postmodernism involves a radical transformation of science, religion and culture that constitutes a revolution even greater than the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster. . .
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.

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