Chapter 5: Non-Energetic Causation and Cosmic Purpose

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 5: Non-Energetic Causation and Cosmic Purpose

We have just looked at the view that biology is in principle reducible to physics and chemistry and that life can be fully explained in terms of the movements of molecules and atoms. The essence of Polanyi’s critique of this view is that life requires something extraneous to physics and chemistry in order to have emerged in evolution. According to one of his analogies: just as the sequence of letters on a page is extraneous to the chemistry of ink and paper, so the sequence of nucleic acids in the DNA molecule (which, when translated, determines the shape of an organism and its specific characteristics) is extraneous to the chemical forces operative in the genetic process. Though life processes rely upon physico-chemical processes, Polanyi insists that they cannot be fully explained in terms of physics and chemistry. There are extraneous organizational factors at work in the emergence of life that cannot be specified by the more basic sciences. Therefore biology cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry.1

To many scientific thinkers, however, any talk about "extraneous" organizational principles operative in nature sounds somewhat mystical. Or it may also sound like a reversion to metaphysical dualism. Reference to non-physical causation does not resonate harmoniously with mechanistic biology which attempts to explain life in terms of specifiable chemical components and physical forces. The postulation of extraneous organizational principles leads biologists like Monod to classify Polanyi’s thought as vitalistic.2 (Vitalism is the philosophy of nature which holds that the existence of life is exclusively the result of some extra-material principle totally different from matter.) An extraneous cause that cannot be grasped in terms of the laws governing mass and energy appears to abide outside the realm of legitimate scientific reference. It belongs to the domain of the mystical. Therefore it need not be taken seriously by scientific thought.

In this chapter I would like to argue that extraneous causation is a legitimate notion, that it is not a vitalistic ploy but instead an indispensable explanatory idea, though not one capable of scientific verification. In doing so I shall introduce some ideas of Rupert Sheldrake and place them alongside suggestions made by Polanyi. And finally I shall relate the contributions of both thinkers to the larger question of nature and purpose.

Sheldrake’s Hypothesis of Formative Causation

Rupert Sheldrake has recently written a book which, I think, is destined to arouse much discussion and controversy. It is entitled A New Science of Life, and the important subtitle reads: "The Hypothesis of Formative Causation."3 The book’s thesis is that in addition to mechanical and energetic causation as understood by the conventional materialist approach of most biologists, a fuller grasp of the phenomena of matter, life and consciousness requires the hypothesis of "formative causation." None of the entities in nature can be explained fully in terms of the movement of molecules. This axiom applies especially, though not exclusively, to life forms. Some non-mechanical causative principle of order is required to explain, for example, why the molecules of living beings come together into specific shapes, why organisms develop specific characteristics or have the capacity to regulate their metabolism or readjust and reintegrate themselves holistically when injured or when challenged by their environment. Some formative cause which canalizes the process of growth and development has to be postulated to explain why animals develop reflexes, instincts, habits and behavior that give them their defining qualities. This canalization occurs through "morphogenetic fields." Going contrary to what he calls the orthodox approach of mechanistic biology, Sheldrake, like Polanyi, insists upon the necessity of an extraneous causal factor in addition to the mechanical and energetic causes operative in the biosphere. His book has obvious implications for the whole problem of nature and purpose.

I shall not attempt to summarize Sheldrake’s hypothesis in detail. Much of it remains highly speculative, and I would not care to defend all of it. At times it is quite unconvincing. I am troubled, for example, by Sheldrake’s expectation that the hypothesis of formative causation can be verified by scientific experimentation. I would maintain, rather, that the hypothesis is trivialized and misunderstood if it is placed in the category of the verifiable and falsifiable propositions of empirical science. Instead it has more plausibility as a metaphysical than as a scientific instrument of explanation. And it is as such that I shall explore its possibilities for illuminating the nature of the extraneous causal factors required in an emergent universe.

The most important and applicable aspect of Sheldrake’s proposal, for our purposes, lies in his development of the notion of morphogenetic fields to explain the hierarchical structure of nature. Sheldrake is not the first to use this notion, but his presentation is one of the clearest to date, and I think it avoids the vitalistic overtones that have burdened other renditions of the idea.

"Morphogenesis" (from the Greek morphe = form, and genesis = birth, origin) means simply the process of something’s coming-to-be according to a specific form. What, though, is meant by a morphogenetic "field"? The metaphor "field" is suggested by the effect that magnets or electromagnetic systems have on iron filings or other entities that are noncontiguous with the magnetic source. And the notion of gravitational "fields" exercising influence across space has long been a major aspect of modern science. In fact today the notion of "field" is often considered primary, while that of physical "body" is secondary to and derivative of field. After Einstein physical phenomena can no longer be explained in terms of energy alone: ". . . although energy can be regarded as the cause of change, the ordering of change depends on the spatial structure of the fields."4 So there is a well-established precedent for use of the term "field" in scientific discourse.

A morphogenetic field, then, would be the non-energetic context of causation that accounts for the origin and development of physical and biological forms.5

Sheldrake takes up the suggestion made by some earlier biologists that there are morphogenetic fields exercising formative influence on the origin, epigenesis and activity of organisms. Such morphogenetic fields, however, are not confined to biological reality. They govern as well the formation of electrons, atoms, crystals and other inorganic systems.6 Thus they do not enter as a kind of deus ex machina (in the manner depicted by some vitalists) only at the level of life. These causal fields are an essential and pervasive factor at every level in nature and evolution.

Precisely how these morphogenetic fields exercise their influence is a matter of speculation. Ordinary scientific procedures cannot specify how or where the formative causation of these fields intersects with physical phenomena.7 For this reason the field theory has gained little acceptance among "orthodox" biologists. But Sheldrake is not put off by the fact of the apparently vaporous nature of morphogenetic fields. For mechanical explanation, especially in biology, simply cannot answer all the questions that arise concerning the origin, evolution and behavior of life. It is too much to expect that the morphological diversity and the organic versatility of organisms can be explained purely in terms of the bonding of chemicals. For example, the folding of a polypeptide chain into the three-dimensional structure of a protein seems to follow a specific form or pattern. Just as the flow of a stream is determined by a specific landscape, so it seems that the growth and development of the proteins follow an "epigenetic landscape" which is extraneous to the physico-chemical forces that energize the growth process.8 And just as the geographical landscape is extraneous to the flow of water by the power of gravitation, so the epigenetic landscape is extraneous to the "flow" of energized matter operating by physico-chemical forces in the organism’s epigenesis.

Thus it seems to Sheldrake that we need to posit a formative causation in addition to the mechanical causation involved in nature’s structuration into specific kinds of entities. Things do end up with distinct shapes and characteristics. Can this morphological discreteness and diversity be accounted for only in mechanical-energetic terms? Though we cannot observe them directly, we must postulate also the existence of morphogenetic fields through which formative causation operates.9 If fields are so determinative of the reality of electrons and stars, why should living beings be exempt from such influence also?

And yet it is baffling that these fields would be so elusive, so resistant to tangible grasp. Why does the idea of morphogenetic fields sound so suspiciously mystical? The reason is that these fields exercise their influence in a most unobtrusive manner. They are morphologically active while being energetically passive.10 ". . . although morphogenetic fields can only bring about their effects in conjunction with energetic processes, they are not in themselves energetic."11 Therefore, they are unavailable to the grasp of those scientific procedures which seek only to specify the mechanical-energetic factors in the production of effects.

The idea of non-energetic formative causation is easier to grasp with the help of an architectural analogy. In order to construct a house, bricks and other building materials are necessary; so are the builders who put the materials into place; and so is the architectural plan which determines the form of the house. The same quantity of building materials could produce a house of different form on the basis of a different plan. Thus the plan can be regarded as a cause of the specific form of the house, although of course it is not the only cause: it could never be realized without the building materials and the activity of the builders. Similarly a specific morphogenetic field is a cause of the specific form taken up by a system, although it cannot act without suitable "building blocks" and without the energy necessary to move them into place.12

Sheldrake himself, however, does not think that these morphogenetic fields lie outside the scope of scientific methods of verification. Instead he speculates that they exercise their effects, not only in the realm of physics but also in biology, in a manner open to experimentation. He even suggests (in a way most scientists will inevitably find highly problematic) that experiments might be devised to verify the hypothesis of formative causation. It is here that I think he trivializes his metaphysical position by squeezing it into the too narrow framework of scientific inquiry. He concedes too much in the end to the methods of scientific materialism including the demand for tangible evidence. I would question whether we need to bring the hypothesis of formative causation before the court of scientific judgment, even if it does somehow find independent authentication there.

Sheldrake pictures morphogenetic fields as being the context in which forms (of life or physical reality) which arose in the past exercise their causal influence by a non-energetic "resonance" with subsequent similar systems13 Resonance of course is a physical analogy for something that is not physical: "A ‘resonant’ effect of form upon form across space and time would resemble energetic resonance in its selectivity, but it could not be accounted for in terms of any of the known types of resonance, nor would it involve a transmission of energy"14 In order to distinguish it from energetic resonance, Sheldrake calls this process morphic resonance. Through this morphic resonance within a morphogenetic field the form of a past system can become present to a later similar system. ". . . the spatio-temporal pattern of the former superimposes itself on the latter"15 "Morphic resonance takes place through morphogenetic fields and indeed gives rise to their characteristic structures. Not only does a specific morphogenetic field influence the form of a system . . . but also the form of this system influences the morphogenetic field and through it becomes present to subsequent systems."16

Since morphic resonance is non-energetic, and morphogenetic fields are not composed of mass or energy, there is no reason for us to expect them to have to obey the ordinary laws of physics. Morphic resonance can exercise its causal effect in a manner "unattenuated by time and space."17 Therefore, a past system can exercise its influence across space and time from a distance, non-contiguously with its effects.

Interesting as this speculation may be, I doubt the need for Sheldrake to insist upon scientific experimentation in order to legitimate the hypothesis of formative causation. Such an "hypothesis" is a metaphysical necessity and not an ad hoc scientific exigency. Metaphysically speaking, in order for anything even to be, it must be ordered or patterned in some way.18 Without some form it would be sheer indeterminate chaos. In other words it would be nothing. The form of something, as the ancient Greek philosophers recognized, is intrinsic to its very being. Everything, Aristotle taught, must have a "formal cause." Formative causation is a general aspect of all reality. Of course the Greeks do not have the final word on the subject, and we can possibly learn a lot from science about the results of morphogenetic causation. The merit of Sheldrake’s book is that it boldly and intelligently speculates on the dynamic, epigenetic nature of morphogenesis in the biosphere. However, by specific experiments science can add little intensively to the legitimacy of the notion of formative causation (though it certainly may do so cumulatively). And I doubt seriously whether future scientific experimentation such as Sheldrake proposes will significantly add to or subtract from its viability.

After this qualification has been made, however, I think Sheldrake’s presentation of the hypothesis of formative causation has a major contribution to make to discussion of the central issue in science and religion, namely, the question whether the fabric of nature is in any sense congruous with the religious hypothesis that the universe is purposeful. The manner in which divine purposiveness would exercise its influence on nature may be understood, in part at least, on the analogy of Sheldrake’s notion of non-energetic morphogenetic causation.

Cosmic Purpose and Non-Energetic Causation

The scientific materialist usually attempts an explanation of phenomena exclusively in atomistic, molecular, macromolecular or genetic terms. Physico-chemical elements possess an empirical quality that can be expressed by way of pictures, models or mathematics. Its recondite nature, however, renders the idea of morphogenetic causation highly suspect. It appears simply too elusive to be given serious consideration by science as such. Morphogenetic fields have neither mass nor energy. And so to the materialist they do not seem to be part of the "real" world.

The absence of any direct empirical evidence of cosmic purpose is intricately linked with the lack of any immediately tangible evidence of morphogenetic fields that would exercise a causative influence on the formation of discrete systems in the natural world. It is nearly impossible for the mechanist to conceive, let alone imagine, how something which is energetically passive and void of mass can be nonetheless real and influential. Yet I would suggest that cosmic teleology (whatever its specific nature), as well as morphogenetic causation in general, would share this trait of concealment. Therefore, I shall attempt here by way of images and analogies to vindicate the possible reality of non-energetic causation. I would emphasize, however, that the following does not pretend to be a demonstration of the existence of morphogenetic fields or of cosmic purpose. Rather it attempts only to point out the logical and cosmological congruity of these unobtrusive formative factors with nature as understood by science.

Analogy "A"

Our first analogy is derived and adapted from one given by Michael Polanyi in The Tacit Dimension.19 It concerns the way in which the laying of bricks in a town is influenced by the designs of the architect and, higher yet, the town-planner. To understand what a town is it is not sufficient to consult the brickmason. The latter of course can tell you a great deal about how bricks bond with one another and how their juxtaposition, one against or on top of another, contributes to the formation of a wall, a corner, a tower, etc. But this specification of the particulars of town-building does not really tell you what a town is. Nor does it give you all of the causal factors involved in its construction. For in addition to the "mechanical" causes specified by the mason there are "formative" causes provided by the architect’s designs. These designs are themselves energetically passive and devoid of mass (except to the extent that they are portrayed by blue ink on white paper). And yet they exercise a causal influence without which there would be no town. They provide the pattern which gives the town its specific character. That is, they cause the town to be what it is, even though they do not possess the massiveness of a single brick. While the architect relies for the implementation of his plans upon the successful performance of the bricklayer, an analysis of the brick level does not tell us what is involved in the phenomenon of a town, except very superficially. For a wider understanding we need to consult the architect, and for a still more comprehensive vision we would have to be informed by the town-planner.

The feature of this analogy that I would like to draw out at this point is simply the fact that something need not be part of the mass-energy continuum in order to be causally real. Nor need it be energetically active in order to exercise influence. The formative designs of the architect are extraneous to the mechanically energetic bricklaying process, and yet they are profoundly influential. The purposes of the town planner are extraneous to the methods of architecture, and yet they are causal of the pattern that the architect’s designs follow. There is a hierarchy of levels involved in building a town. And as we move up the hierarchy the levels become more subtle and less massive, though their causal importance increases. The town planner has more influence on the character of the town than does the architect, and the architect more than the bricklayer. Each level relies upon the lower, but cannot be exhaustively explained in terms of the lower. The higher has power to organize the lower levels even though it is less massive-energetic than those below it.

We may conclude from this example that the non-interference of formative causation is no argument against its existence and effectiveness. Our question, though, is whether something like this silent formative causation is operative in nature as a whole. Before returning to this question, let us look at another analogy.

Analogy "B"

This analogy is suggested by the manner in which a landscape causally shapes the structure and performance of a stream of water. Here the lay of the land in terms of hills and valleys, though energetically passive, determines the course a river will take, how large or small it will be at specific points, how fast or slow it will flow in particular regions, and how much physical potential or active energy it will have at various locations. Though non-energetic itself, the form of the landscape is a determinative factor in the amount of energy available in the river s flow. Formative causation, though itself non-energetic, is a factor in determining the kind and availability of energy. Passivity may in a certain sense be seen as prior to activity.

Now it is possible to study the flow of the river while prescinding altogether from the landscape. The landscape is a silent, unobtrusive horizon or background which is forgotten or suppressed as we focus on the energetic stream of water itself. The landscape’s energetic passivity is not easily made the subject of explicit knowledge as long as we are focally concerned with the flow of water. And yet the energetic potential and activity of the stream is itself a gift of the landscape. The latter, as it were, recedes graciously into the background where its morphogenetic influence lies unacknowledged though quite real.

Again this is only an analogy. But we can make use of it to understand not only how specific systems of matter, life and consciousness arise, but also to symbolize the manner in which cosmic purpose may be operating graciously, silently, caringly in the universe.

Following this analogy I would see the mechanistic interpretation of matter, life and consciousness as so focused on the energetically causal flow of water (matter) that it suppresses any focal knowledge of the formative causation by the landscape (morphogenetic fields). In biological discussion when a few speculative biologists point to the necessity of an "epigenetic landscape" to make sense of embryogenesis, development and growth their colleagues usually summon them back to "reality" with sober accusations of mystification. Today there is very little entertainment among scientific thinkers of the possibility that the epigenesis of an organism is causally formed by a morphogenetic "landscape" in addition to the molecular movements of chemicals. It is almost as though the stream of water in our analogy were magically suspended independently of the landscape, and the specific contours which make it this particular stream have no relation to the lay of the land.

The Tao of Biology

What we have called "extraneous causation" is energetically passive and, therefore, unspecifiable by science, while remaining morphogenetically active. It may seem paradoxical that passivity gives rise to activity. But this is not the first place human thought has proposed such a paradox. The possibility of non-interfering effectiveness is a major intuition of one of the most revered and respected bodies of ancient wisdom, philosophical Taoism. Among the world’s religious traditions there is perhaps none that bases itself so squarely on the principle of effective unobtrusiveness as Taoism. The Tao, the ultimate principle of reality, is said to exercise its influence on nature and man not by active causation but by wu-wei, an untranslatable term for "active inaction" or, as I would prefer, "effective non-interference" or "non-interfering effectiveness."

In the Tao Te Ching, a text attributed to Lao-Tzu (sixth century BC.) the Tao (or "Way") that moves nature is symbolized as feminine, as like water, as like a valley, an uncarved block, or a child. All of these are seen as examples of wu-wei -- they accomplish much while being passive, helpless, pliable. In Taoism the universe is governed by non-energetic causation. Common sense and physical science for the most part tend to notice only things which are prominent and forceful. Lao-Tzu, however, stresses the power of the negative, of that which does not stick out in obviousness. The Tao which shapes nature is so unprominent that one cannot even name it. It recedes behind or beyond all phenomena and is not to be found among the things which impress our senses. Yet it is all-powerful in its self-withdrawal. Tao is like water:

That which is best is similar to water.

Water profits ten thousand things and does not oppose them.

It is always at rest in humble places that people dislike.

Thus it is close to Tao. (Ch. 8)20

The way of nature, according to Lao-Tzu, is non-interference. The area of our experience governed by force or active energy is superficial in comparison with the silent depth of the universe.

The Tao is not only non-interfering; it may even be spoken of as "non-being," in the sense that it does not fall among the class of things we normally refer to as "beings." Rather it is "no-thing." And precisely as such does it exercise its power. The Tao Te Ching gives these illustrative images:

Thirty spokes are joined at the hub.

From their non-being arises the function of the wheel.

Lumps of clay are shaped into a vessel.

From their non-being arises the functions of the vessel.

Doors and windows are constructed together to make a chamber.

From their non-being arises the functions of the chamber.

Therefore, as individual beings, these things are useful materials.

Constructed together in their non-being, they give rise to function

Wu Cheng (1249-1333) comments: "If it were not for the empty space of the hub to turn round the wheel, there would be no movement of the cart on the ground. If it were not for the hollow space of the vessel to contain things, there would be no space for storage. If it were not for the vacuity of the room between the windows and doors for lights coming in and going out, there would be no place to live."22

I would suggest that formative causation through morphogenetic fields makes itself felt at the levels of matter, life, mind and the universe as a whole in this non-interfering manner of influence. However, if there is universal purpose to cosmic process, Taoism teaches us that we would be sensitive to it only after we have ourselves learned the wisdom of wu wei and allowed our lives to be formed accordingly. Scientific investigation, focusing on the spokes, the clay, the window and door frames, is silenced when it comes to the void which makes things functionally active. Awareness of cosmic purpose acting non-energetically could occur only after a personal transformation in which the Taoist humility and sensitivity to non-being has taken root.

In Christianity as well as other religious traditions besides Taoism there is a fundamental conviction that "power is made manifest in weakness." It is one of the central, but one of the most disturbing, insights humans have had about the nature of ultimate reality. Taoism expresses a conviction about the ultimate that is common to the mystical sense of many traditions:

Gaze at it; there is nothing to see.

It is called the formless.

Heed it; there is nothing to hear.

It is called the soundless.

Grasp it; there is nothing to hold on to.

It is called the immaterial.

Invisible, it cannot be called by any name.

It returns again to nothingness. (Tao Te Ching Ch 14)23

Somehow the power, the capacity to influence, resident in ultimate reality is not in spite of but rather a result of its non-availability. This intuition of Taoism (and I think of Christianity and other religious traditions also) makes somewhat pretentious the philosophical demand that all reality show itself phenomenally. The view that all reality should be within our grasp is, according to these traditions, a most impoverishing attitude rooted in a will to mastery. Both our senses and our minds need eventually to back off from the cloying obtrusiveness of things, objects, beings.

Numerous colors make man sightless.

Numerous sounds make man unable to hear.

Numerous tastes make man tasteless. (Tao Te Ching Ch. 12)24

From the busy-ness of objects and sensations we need to be brought back to reality, to the undifferentiated fullness of Tao.

Contemplate the ultimate void.

Remain truly in quiescence.

All things are together in action,

But I look into their non-action. (Tao Te Ching Ch. 16)25

Scientific method is not equipped to deal with wu wei (nonaction). For this reason the hypothesis of formative causation seems mystical. I suspect that it seems mystical because it is mystical. This is the reason for my objection to Sheldrake’s attempt to bring formative causation into the focus of scientific objectification. Formative causation, acting non-energetically, must be respected for its Tao-like style of influence. It is not to be wondered at if scientific thinkers sense "mysticism" when they hear talk of extraneous causation. The hypothesis of formative causation is mystical (which is not the same as saying it is dualistic or vitalistic). Nor is it surprising that the hypothesis of extraneous formal causation would be subjected to the ridicule of scientific materialists. Such ridicule is not unanticipated, however:

When a man of superior talent listens to Tao, he earnestly applies it.

When an ordinary man listens to Tao, he seems to believe it and yet not to believe it.

When the worst man listens to Tao, he greatly ridicules it.

If he did not ridicule it, it would not be the Tao. (Ch. 41)26


1. Polanyi, Knowing and Being, pp. 225-39.

2. Monod, pp. 27-28.

3. Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1981).

4. Ibid., p. 60.

5. Ibid., pp. 71-91.

6. Ibid., pp. 76-81.

7. Our terminology may be misleading here since according to field theory specific objects do not so much intersect with fields as perhaps explicate, or unfold the fields. Cf. Bohm, pp. 140-71.

8. Sheldrake, pp. 50-51.

9. Ibid., pp. 12-13, 52, 59, 71, 116.

10. Ibid., p. 80.

11. Ibid., p. 71.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 95.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 96.

17. Ibid., p. 97.

18. Cf. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 223.

19. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, pp. 29-52.

20. Translation by Chang Chung-yuan, Tao: A New Way of Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 27.

21. Ibid., p. 35.

22. Quoted in ibid., p. 36.

23. Ibid., p. 43.

24. Ibid., p. 38.

25. Ibid., p. 47.

26. Ibid., p. 115.