Chapter 5: Purpose

Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 5: Purpose

Once we view nature as a hierarchy of emergent dimensions in which physical reality is pervasively "experiential," what can we make of the question of purpose? Is emergence a trend in nature leading toward some goal that we can clearly anticipate? Is it an essentially aimless play of cosmic forces signifying nothing? Or is it a process whose possible direction can never be fully clarified, but which may nonetheless be called purposeful, significant and meaningful?

If there is purpose in our emergent universe, we may now legitimately speculate that it would be present in the form of a "higher" or "deeper" dimension influencing and ordering the lower (Or surface) dimensions. We have already established that the biotic principles elucidated by the life sciences can order physico-chemical processes without violating them. And it is evident that mental operations, following principles logically irreducible to bio-chemistry, can impose an even higher order on physical and biological processes without disrupting the causal continuity of the latter. An unbrokenness at a lower "level" does not rule out, but rather makes possible its integration into a higher one. Is it possible, then, that there is yet a further, transcendent integrating and ordering influence operative in nature, one that "orders" the lower dimensions including the noosphere without disrupting their apparent continuity? Such an hypothesis, though not scientifically verifiable, is at least consonant with the logic of emergence.

Experience and logic both yield the principle that a higher dimension can comprehend a lower, but not vice-versa. Biotic principles can integrate, order or "comprehend" molecular occurrences, but the latter cannot do the same to the former. Mental activity can embrace and rely upon the particulars of biological processes and biochemical reactions in the nervous system, but our grasp of the workings of the lower processes does not by itself give us an understanding of the nature of consciousness. Comprehension is unidirectional. Consequently, if the lower cannot comprehend the higher, and if there is an ultimate, transcendent dimension encompassing and influencing nature, then it could not be comprehended by our own minds in any case. In other words, if there is a divine scheme of purposefulness that envelops and grounds the dimensions of our emergent cosmos, we would not be able to grasp it in an objectifying, controlling way. Rather it would grasp us, and we would then experience ourselves (initially in what we have called primary perception) as being taken up into such an ultimate synthesis.

There have always been available in human life mysterious modes of expression intimating such a sense of being embraced by a deeper dimension. These expressions are especially, though not exclusively, the symbols, myths and rituals of religion. Unable to fit these elusive expressions into an objectifying, scientific understanding of the world, we often dismiss them as illusory. Yet this derogation of the language of religion as incongruous with what we know scientifically about a one-dimensional universe, may turn out to be inappropriate in terms of an emergent, multidimensional one.


In an emergent universe it is never possible, standing within a lower dimension, to reach an objectively adequate knowledge of the organizational patterns that may be operative at a "higher" one. All we can say with certainty is that the reliable functioning of the lower is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the successful performances of the higher, and that the breakdown of the lower may bring about the failure of the higher.1 But knowledge of the lower, no matter how sophisticated, cannot account for the higher’s successful achievements. To account for these achievements we need to have a knowledge of the extraneous ordering principles that harness lower processes and integrate them into novel arrangements. The science of the lower cannot give us such principles. Thus we need a hierarchy of "sciences" or modes of knowing corresponding to the hierarchy of emergent dimensions in nature. The science of the lower is not "adequate" to comprehend the organizing principles that pertain to a higher emergent set of occurrences. Whenever, as is often the case today, physical science attempts to encompass the totality of the universe, the higher (or deeper) is inevitably diminished, confined to the heuristic field of the lower (or surface) mode of inquiry. And within such imprisonment the world’s genuinely emergent dimensions are lost, or their existence even denied. 2

However, there is a mode of consciousness by which we at the human level of emergence might become aware, in a non- controlling, non-comprehensive sort of way, of possible higher purposive principles and patterns of influence operative in the cosmos. Certainly any controlling type of cognition is ruled out in principle. But what is not necessarily excluded is another kind of cognition by which we leave ourselves open to being grasped by whatever higher or deeper ordering influence there may be. The classical, but often misunderstood, name for this cognitive stance of receptivity to new possibilities of being comprehended is faith.

Faith is a problematic term in our science-dominated intellectual world. It often seems to mean the attitude of those who are afraid to look at the facts or who have no mature interest in the real world. However, I would like to argue that faith may be understood as a reality-probing stance of consciousness if taken in the context of emergence. Faith is simply a confident receptivity to and active appropriation of new possibilities of emergent order. As such it has its roots in the cosmic process itself. Faith is the route evolution takes at the human dimension of emergence as the universe ventures into the future. In order to clarify this notion of faith, however, we have to set it apart from those impressions many intelligent people have that it is a groundless commitment to absurdities or a clinging obsession with certitudes that may never be challenged. Instead, in a radical sense of the term, faith means an adventurous and exploratory rather than a strictly dogmatic posture. And its orientation toward reality consists precisely in its trustful openness to the reception of novel forms of order. In this sense, then, it is through faith that we would become aware of nature’s purpose, should there be such.

Let us explore further the role of faith in the context of an emergent universe. As Polanyi has brilliantly demonstrated, each lower dimension in a hierarchy of emergents, without violation of its own internal structure, leaves itself open to being ordered by a higher set of principles extraneous to itself. Without this stance of openness the lower would be impervious to any integration into the higher, and so there would be no possibility of creative advance in the universe. But the most characteristic way in which the lower process leaves itself open to the higher is to function without violation of its own internal principles and structures. No suspension of the laws operating at the lower level is required for a novel emergent possibility to make its appearance in evolution. No exceptional performance is needed for the emergence of a deeper and more complex dimension. In fact there must be a consistency and predictability at the lower level in order for the emergent pattern, the new integrating reality, to appear and to function.

If for example there were a breakdown at the level of the DNA molecule’s physico-chemical constituents and reactions, the cell’s transmission of essential genetic information would be frustrated, and life would not be given an opportunity to appear, let alone perform and achieve. For life "dwells in" and "relies upon" the consistency of the physico-chemical processes it integrates into its biotic configurations. 3 Or, to give another example, if neurological routines were disturbed, then the performance of mental operations would likewise be impeded. So in order for them to fulfill their role in emergence, the lower or subordinate processes need only function normally, predictably and continuously. We shall be able to draw some important consequences from this postulate later on.

Evolution has now advanced into the "noosphere," the domain of man and consciousness. This latest dominant emergent dimension almost daily seems to be taking on an increasingly planetary aspect. Teilhard de Chardin has expressed this impression with an incomparable vividness:

All round us, tangibly and materially, the thinking envelope of the earth -- the Noosphere -- is adding to its internal fibres and tightening its network; and at the same time its internal temperature is rising, and with this its psychic potential. These two associated portents allow of no misunderstanding. What is really going on, under cover and in the form of human collectivization, is the super-organization of Matter upon itself, which as it continues to advance produces its habitual, specific effect, the further liberation of consciousness. 4

. . .

Whether we like it or not, from the beginning of our history and through all the interconnected forces of Matter and Spirit, the process of our collectivization has ceaselessly continued, slowly or in jerks, gaining ground each day. That is the fact of the matter. It is as impossible for Mankind not to unite upon itself as it is for the human intelligence not to go on indefinitely deepening its thought! . . . Instead of seeking, against all the evidence, to deny or disparage the reality of this grand phenomenon, we do better to accept it frankly. Let us look it in the face and see whether, using it as an unassailable foundation, we cannot erect upon it a hopeful edifice of joy and liberation. 5

It is not my purpose in this book to argue for the legitimacy of Teilhard’s particular version of the universe’s purpose, even though I am attracted to it in many ways. Instead I envision this volume as a prolegomenon to the sort of speculation that Teilhard has undertaken. I see a preliminary necessity for demonstrating the theoretical congeniality of nature to any kind of teleological interpretation in the face of the many contemporary denials of such a possibility. Teilhard himself has not provided an adequate theoretical discussion of the notions of physical reality, perception, causation and emergence upon which to implant his evolutionary teleological vision. And for this reason I have made appeal to Whitehead and Polanyi who are more comfortable with the complexities of philosophical discussion than is Teilhard.

Nonetheless, I see in Teilhard an openness to further emergent possibilities that exemplifies what I am calling faith. He opens us up to the possibility that the noosphere, dominated by the phenomenon of intercommunication among personal, cognitive centers may constitute a new "lower" dimension that could conceivably be taken up into a "higher" one. His thinking seems to be consistent with the logic of emergence; and if there is present in the universe any deeper or higher ordering principle, it is through the kind of visionary consciousness Teilhard exemplifies that we would be given a sense of it.

As Teilhard insists, there is no reason for us to think that the present status of the noosphere constitutes the end of the evolutionary process. In fact, when viewed by cosmic standards, beings endowed with the faculty to communicate linguistically, to express their ideas and aspirations, and to form communities around shared hopes have not been inhabitants of the terrestrial portion of the universe for more than a flash of time. The human race, in other words, is possibly very early in its development and is by no means clearly the climax of cosmic emergence. If we are to speculate, with Teilhard, about the future of the evolutionary trajectory, therefore, we may at least conjecture that it will not deviate from the logic of emergence that dominates episodes preceding us. Thus we would express our continuity with the evolutionary past by leaving ourselves and our humanity open to being synthesized into increasingly deeper organizing influences. When I use the term "faith" I am referring to this stance of adventurous, risk-filled openness that would allow such a possibility to take hold of the noosphere without in any way disrupting its "normal" forms of interaction.

In a qualified sense we might be able to see in mankind’s religious longings the primordial, but by no means the exclusive expression of faith. Whether explicitly religious or not, however, the only cognitive posture that would be "adequate" to the presence of a teleological dimension in nature is faith, and not science exclusively. In searching for any evidence of purposive influence, the scientific approach tends to look for instances of discontinuity in natural processes whereby a teleological push or pull would insert itself somewhat obtrusively into the fabric of nature. (See the statement by Ernst Mayr quoted earlier for an example of the scientist’s expectation of an exceptional display of purposive presence as a condition for his accepting a teleological perspective.)6 But not being able to verify such instances of disturbance of physical continuity, scientific reductionism rejects the possibility of any teleological presence whatsoever. If there is a higher purpose in nature, scientific thinkers often expect that it would somehow intrude into the lower spheres accessible to scientific inquiry. They do not grasp the fact that such an intrusion would be a violation of the laws and logic emergence: the higher dimensions never interfere with or suspend the workings of the lower. We have insisted all along that unbrokenness at the lower level is a condition of and not an argument against the presence and effectiveness of higher organizing factors. Consistent with this principle we are now maintaining that no magical, extraordinary interruption of physico-chemical, biological, psychological or interpersonal transactions is required for us to accept the reality of a transcendent ground of emergent order. The manifestation of such a presence need not take place either in violation of or apart from nature or human nature in particular. Rather it could occur in complete continuity with the logic of emergence. It need not interrupt the normal flow of human interpersonal encounter any more than the building of a town interrupts the laws operative in the juxtaposition of brick and mortar.

We may conclude, therefore, that the notion of purpose is logically compatible with the emergent aspects of nature but that the discernment of such purpose cannot be achieved by a purely scientific quest for peculiar mechanisms or unusual disturbances of the normal, lawful flow of physical, biotic and conscious activities. Rather, the sense of a deeper, purposively ordering presence in nature would reside in the nonscientific mode of consciousness that we have called faith.

Purpose and Physical Reality

We have attempted thus far in this chapter to argue for the theoretical concordance of transcendent purpose with the logic of emergence. But we may also understand "purpose" in terms of the "mental-experiential" character of physical reality that we set forth in the earlier chapters. Throughout this book we have been firmly maintaining that the reconciliation of the notions of nature and purpose can occur only after the view that physical reality is non-mental has been challenged. A mindless universe is hardly conformable to any truly teleological interpretation. Certainly ancient and medieval thought were aware of this axiom. The Greeks, for example, saw nature as saturated with mind and, therefore, with meaning. And traditional philosophies have often regarded our own individual cognitional faculties as microcosmic instances of a macrocosmic mind or logos that runs throughout the purposive universe. Today, however, we tend to condense mentality into our own individual cerebral frameworks, and to imagine everything else as devoid of any semblance of mentality.

We have criticized the conventional materialistic picture of physical reality, perception, causation and evolution that follows from a thorough-going expulsion of mentality and feeling from the fundamental constituents of nature. It remains now for us to explore the idea of purpose in relation to our alternative notion of physical reality. What precisely do we mean when we speculate that this experiential universe is purposive?

To begin with, we do not mean that there is a predetermined direction to world process. Both scientists and theologians have proposed goal-directed (orthogenetic) interpretations of evolution in the past. And these interpretations have been justifiably criticized as simplistic and naive by modern biologists and physicists. The presence of entropic trends, of chance and indeterminacy in physical reality is too obvious for us to hold that nature is the deterministic implementation of some blue-print rigidly inscribed in the nature of things by God or any other imaginable cosmic principle. Strait-jacket teleology has been legitimately scorned. There simply is no scientific or religious evidence of any pre-established cosmic plan.

As an alternative to such a disreputable point of view, however, we might understand purpose in the universe in terms of what has sometimes been called a "loose" teleology.7 By this I mean that the cosmos may be a significant, value-laden process without needing to be strictly directional in its advance through time. The events that make up world process may be rescued from seeming oblivion and insignificance without corresponding to any deterministic conception of a goal for cosmic becoming. "Telos," in other words, need not entail a specific "finis." 8

The notion of purpose comes to us in part from our experience of historical existence. Human concern for meaning has for centuries sought intelligibility primarily in the context of social and political events that constitute history. This longing for meaning has given rise to preoccupation with purpose in socio-historical life. And out of this concern there has developed the question we have been discussing, whether nature itself, in its sub-human as well as in its human dimensions manifests any caring, providential influence. The concerns expressed throughout this book are not derived from any nakedly unhistorical encounter with nature, since this is not a possibility in any case. Rather they erupt out of the questions and uncertainties of an entire historical period. The question of nature and purpose would not arise in the first place, nor would it have any interest to us, apart from our own unique historical situation with its own particular hopes and threats.

The notion of purpose derives also in part from our experience of machines and other artifacts invented by man in order to realize specific functions. "Purpose" is a hybrid term with various levels of meaning, one of which is at times a quasi-mechanistic one. In a machine dominated age we tend to scrutinize the natural world for patterns that we are familiar with from observing the products of engineering and cybernetics. We look for mechanical explanations, feed-back processes and other trends that might make aspects of nature intelligible to us in terms of our own functionally purposive intelligence. And we are of ten successful in verifying the presence of such teleonomic structures in discrete phenomena. But whether we can find and verify any analogous functional scheme in the universe as a whole is another question altogether. Indeed it seems that if the universe is purposeful, it would have to be so in some other sense than we find in the mechanical and historical fields of interest.

When we ask whether nature as a whole exhibits any purpose we notice immediately that the question is thwarted by the lack of perspective we have on any possible universal patterns and by the vast tracts of time and space over which nature sprawls in its depth of unavailability to our direct experience. We simply cannot give an answer anything like that we seek on the smaller scale of teleonomic performance of machines, computers and organisms. Regardless of how we understand purpose, then, if we hold that nature is influenced by any sort of final causation, this contention will appear to many to be no more than a stab in the dark without any empirical warrant.

"Purpose," though, need not be restricted to meaning goal- directed activity, whether historical or mechanical. There is a deeper sense in which we can understand the term so that in spite of our lack of universal perspective we may still attribute a teleological aspect to the cosmos. We may understand the purpose of world process in terms of the notion of value interpreted in an aesthetic sense.

Purpose as Aesthetic Value9

The term "purpose" cannot be grasped apart from the notion of value. Only orientation toward value renders a movement purposeful. So purpose will be understood here simply as the defining quality of any process aiming toward the realization of value. But if we are to get at its roots, value needs to be understood aesthetically. Aesthetically interpreted, value entails a synthesis of richness with harmony, complexity with order, novelty with continuity, and intensity with stability. Above all, aesthetic value implies the transformation of contradictions into contrasts that arouse a fullness and intensity of feeling, a sense of beauty, in those who experience the aesthetic object. We spontaneously value those entities that combine the polar qualities just mentioned more than we do those things that are relatively simple in their makeup. The human brain, for example, is granted a value that is lacking in a lump of clay. If we are to formulate a reason for the disparity of the respective evaluations, we can do no better than point to the degree to which each integrates complexity into an overall harmony. The human brain combines complexity with organization more intensely than does a lump of clay. A great work of art, to give another example, is able to integrate a multiplicity of fine contrasting shades of sound, color or verbal meaning into an overall composition of balance and proportion bearing an intensity that is lacking in a work of lesser stature. It is the combination of nuance with harmony that evokes aesthetic appreciation. Nuance without harmony and harmony without nuance both fail to arouse our aesthetic sensitivity and valuation. Value, therefore, is a quality inhering in the patterned unification of elements that in terms of an alternative frame of reference may be irreconcilable or contradictory. In a pattern of value, conflicts are turned into satisfying contrasts by the overall harmony of the aesthetic frame of reference.

It is in this aesthetic sense of value that we may understand the notion of cosmic purpose. Our universe can be understood as an aesthetic reality unifying contradictions into a harmony of contrasts that we might pronounce beautiful and, therefore, good, significant, meaningful.

We may grasp this aesthetic notion of value more firmly if we contrast it with the notion of evil, the contrary of value.10 Evil is a quality associated with trends, persons or phenomena that remain in or degenerate into chaos or triviality when the possibility of harmony and intensity is in fact open to them. For example, war is evil as long as the possibility of peace is open to the combatants. Environmental disintegration is evil when programs could be implemented to enrich and balance complex natural processes. That is, evil may be understood in terms of destruction, disorder or chaos. But "evil" may signify unnecessary triviality as well. If I am capable of enriching my experience, expanding my knowledge or intensifying my sense of beauty, and yet refuse to do so even though opportunity is available, then I am siding with triviality. In a processive world-view the option for monotonous triviality would be an option for evil inasmuch as it turns aside from the pursuit of value, a pursuit that aims for the continual enrichment and intensification of physical reality, consciousness and life. On the other hand if I precipitously and ineptly venture to grasp too much at one time I might be overwhelmed by the complexity of the material that I attempt to appropriate. In this case I risk intellectual, emotional or spiritual chaos. I might try to bite off too much and in the process go mad, or at least become confused. Such disorientation, lack of harmony, is also an evil, though its degree varies considerably from case to case. Discord and unnecessary triviality are the central components of evil situations.

Purpose, therefore, would be the quality of any physical, mental, social, historical or natural process that aims beyond triviality and chaos toward maximizing harmony and intensity. No predetermined goal is required for the evolving, emergent cosmos if we understand its purpose in this aesthetic sense. Its aim toward beauty is the teleology of cosmic process.11

In conceiving of nature’s purpose in an aesthetic sense, we have to recall again and again that our human experience lies on a continuum with the rest of nature. Even though the intensity, scope and originality of our experience differ in degree from those of non-human occasions, nonetheless, there is a structural similarity in all modes of cosmic feeling or prehension. Each occasion feels its past, anticipates novel possibilities and fuses these together in a momentary "enjoyment" or affective intensity that we can legitimately refer to as aesthetic in nature. What occurs in each moment of cosmic process, therefore, is not totally different from the events of sensitivity in artistic creation. Thus our humanly conscious creation and appreciation of beauty exemplifies the kind of aesthetically unifying experience that is pervasive throughout the universe.

In the creation of a work of art, such as a painting, for example, the artist, selecting from innumerable possibilities, fuses into a novel unity many diverse patterns, contrasting shades of color and lighting, subtleties of positioning, variations of theme, texture and emphasis. The aesthetic value of the painting will be proportionate to the degree of intensity to which variety, diversity and contrast are gathered together into novel unity. If contrast is too obtrusive, then the over -- all harmony of the painting is jeopardized. In that case disharmony would inhibit aesthetic enjoyment. But if there is inadequate contrast and variety, then harmony would be so pervasive as to be monotonous. Aesthetic intensity would be negligible, and the painting would be trivial and unenjoyable.

The "purpose" of the artistic project of painting a picture is to realize the highest possible relevant integration of variety with harmony. The more intense the harmony, the richer is the aesthetic enjoyment. The artistic intention of combining variety and harmony may require that a portion of the painting, taken in isolation from the whole, will exhibit a fragmentary note of discord. But a perspective that takes the whole painting into account may be able to unify these discordant particulars into a wider and more intense harmony of contrasts. In this broader perspective, therefore, what is disharmonious from a limited point of view actually contributes to the aesthetic enhancement of the whole. In an aesthetic pattern contradictions and clashes are transformed into contrasts that heighten the value of the totality. May we not envision cosmic evolution as a process of aesthetic unification of often temporarily irreconcilable aspects into a "creation" of unimaginable beauty?

In reading a novel, to use another example of artistic creation, we often feel discomfort while immersed in the conflicts and crises of characters introduced by the novelist. Reading about specific problems besetting them momentarily reproduces in our own feelings the elements of discord presented in the narrative. If we were to cease reading the novel at these critical moments, the conflict and discomfort induced in us would remain suspended and unresolved. But if we continue reading and feeling these episodes in the light of the totality of a well-wrought novel, then the temporary uneasiness provoked by particular fragments of the work may contribute in their uniqueness to the overall aesthetic enjoyment of the literary creation. In retrospect our enjoyment of the whole novel depends upon our having dwelled within the particular episodes which, felt in isolation from the rest of the narrative, are often absurd, unintelligible. The novelist’s purpose is to avoid bath triviality and discord by weaving a relevant variety of detail into an over-all harmony that gives pattern and significance to otherwise mutually discordant incidentals. Of course no novel is ever perfect, and so it tends to some degree toward either triviality or disharmony. The perfect balance is never achieved in actuality. Perfection, understood as the ideal unity of harmony and intensity is the aim of cosmic process, not the achievement of individual aspects or phases within the process.

These examples of aesthetic creativity taken from the realm of human experience should not be disengaged from their cosmic setting. Both in its individual occasions as well as in its totality our universe may be viewed as such an aesthetic process. The fusion of novel possibilities into various modes of harmonized intensity that we experience in human creativity is representative of what goes on throughout cosmic process. The dynamism of the universe may, therefore, be understood as an aim toward the highest possible attainment and enjoyment of beauty. Such an aim would suffice to imbue our universe with the purpose we seek.


From the very limited vantage point that each of us occupies within the emerging universe, discord often seems to be dominant over harmony. We are often even inclined to take our individual experiences of tragedy as the key to the whole universe. However, the aesthetic model of cosmic purpose suggests that our own experiences may be lacking in perspective. There is perhaps a perspective on the universe that we do not ourselves have, but which would be able to unify into an aesthetic whole even those contradictions and absurdities that we deem most insurmountable. I think the word "God" may in part be understood as pointing to such a perspective. In the following two chapters I shall develop this idea in reference especially to the facts of perishing and evil.


1 Again, in speaking of dimensions, I would prefer to employ the terms "surface" and "depth". However, since Polanyi employs the image of "level" together with the qualifications "higher" and lower", I have, with reservations, adopted his terminology here.

2 Cf. Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1977), pp. 1-177. For an elaboration of the principle that the lower is not adequate to the higher cf. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed.

3 For Polanyi’s use of the notions of "indwelling" and "reliance upon" cf. The Tacit Dimension pp. 17-18; 30; 34 ff.

4 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, trans. by Norman Denny (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964), p. 137.

5 Ibid. , pp. 133-134.

6 Ch. IV, n. 6.

7 Cf. Polanyi and Prosch, Meaning, p. 162.

8 Cf. Bernard Loomer, "Commentary on Theological Resources from the Biological Sciences," Zygon I, 1966, p. 59.

9 Cf. Whitehead, Adventures of Idea, pp. 252-96. The following is a "loose" interpretation and application of Whitehead’s theory of value.

10 I am indebted to David R. Griffin, God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 275-310, for much of my discussion of evil.

11 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 265.