Chapter 7: Purpose and Nature’s Hierarchy

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

Chapter 7: Purpose and Nature’s Hierarchy

The objective of this and the following chapter is to set forth two schemes according to which the cosmos may be viewed as teleological. Again, in keeping with the methodological modesty of previous chapters, no pretense will be made that we can demonstrate the existence of purpose in nature. The most we can do is to argue for the plausibility of some kind of universal purpose in the cosmos as we understand it in the light of modern science. Though we cannot demonstrate the existence of purpose in nature, we may at least explain why it eludes our attempts at demonstration. Precisely because of its transcendent Tao-like nature any hypothetical teleological principle would lie beyond the grasp of our controlling modes of inquiry. Our sense of its presence would have to be mediated through a non-controlling mode of cognition the nature of which will be set forth in the present chapter.

The first of our two schemes is framed in terms of the hierarchical structure of nature and the second in terms of aesthetic experience. The first is proposed on the basis of Polanyi’s thought, the second on Whitehead’s. While the two schemes are compatible with one another, they each approach the issue of cosmic meaning by way of different aspects of cosmic structure. Therefore I shall treat each interpretation separately.

The Emergent View of Nature

The cosmologies implied in mythic, religious and most philosophical systems of the past have been hierarchical in nature.1 They have usually delineated four realms of cosmic being: mineral, plant, animal, man. And above or encompassing these they have intuited another level, that of "ultimate reality," variously named and imaged in different traditions. Our ordinary language and thought are still conditioned by hierarchical thinking. And even evolutionary theory continues to rely upon the hierarchical distinctions of levels, though it envisages them as stages in a horizontally linear movement with the lines of demarcation somewhat blurred. I have argued in Chapter 4 that the obvious physical and historical continuity tying the "higher" phases of evolution to the lower does not at all rule out the possibility of an ontological discontinuity. In other words the essence of hierarchical thinking still remains valid even in an evolutionary world-view. I am not entirely happy with the expression "hierarchy of levels," since it fails to accentuate sufficiently the processive nature of reality. It is a notion that seems to fit more readily the Hellenistic than the evolutionary view of the cosmos. And yet I cannot entirely dispense with it. Hierarchical thinking of some sort is necessary if our evolutionary universe is more than one-dimensional. If it is not reducible to the level of matter, then such a universe can be conceptualized only as a variety of levels, dimensions or fields ordered hierarchically. The problem, though, is how to fit the hierarchical onto the evolutionary model.

The key notion in such an alliance is that of "emergence."2 An emergent universe is an evolutionary one in which each successive phase adds something qualitatively new. The emergent phase is more than the sum of its antecedents. In contrast to the notion of emergence is that of "resultance."3 A resultant universe would be one in which each successive evolutionary development is nothing more than the additive "result" of antecedent component physical parts and movements. Such is the universe of materialism. In an emergent universe the influence of extraneous formative causation is the ingredient required to channel the mass-energy continuum into novel and ontologically distinct levels of being. In Chapter 5 I attempted to show why we may postulate the presence of formative causation in nature even though it is not detectable as part of the mass-energy continuum accessible to science. I would now like to direct my discussion more focally toward the question of why any conceivable final causation in an emergent universe would also evade our demands for evidence. How would purpose insinuate itself into a dynamically hierarchical universe without being overwhelmingly noticeable?

Purpose in an Emergent Universe

In any hierarchical structure the higher levels embrace or "comprehend" the lower, but the lower are unable to comprehend the higher. This is what may be called the "hierarchical principle." We have already seen an instance of this principle at work in our speculation on the relationship of life to matter. I have followed Polanyi’s contention that there are organizational principles operative in the universe which formatively influence the specific sequences of nucleic acids in DNA, and with Sheldrake I have postulated the existence of morphogenetic fields which canalize the processes of growth and development in organisms. These formative causes and fields sound like sheer imaginings unless we view them in accordance with the requirements of the hierarchical principle. According to this principle the elusiveness to science of organizational biotic principles and morphogenetic fields is to be expected. These principles and fields are not on the same level as the molecular and, therefore, cannot be grasped with the same degree of verificational control. From the vantage point of an analysis of lower levels the higher cannot be comprehended. The demand by materialists that these principles and fields manifest themselves tangibly is at root a repudiation of the hierarchical principle. Thus the issue of science and religion revolves very closely around the question of the legitimacy of hierarchical thinking.

If there is any sort of final causation influencing our universe, we may safely conjecture that it would reside fundamentally at a higher, more comprehensive level than any accessible to our mind’s grasp. And we need not hold that the presence of such a teleological dimension would interfere with, violate, twist, or modify the "laws" of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc., that define each successive level. By definition, in other words, universal purpose would not stand as one "fact" among others evident to our observation. Biological materialists expect that if there really is a teleological aspect to the cosmos it would be obvious as one among other "facts" of biology. Ernst Mayr, for example, writes:

The proponents of teleological theories, for all their efforts, have been unable to find any mechanisms (except supernatural ones) that can account for their postulated finalism. The possibility that any such mechanism can exist has now been virtually ruled out by the findings of molecular biology.4

By its implicit demand that teleology display itself on the level of molecular mechanisms, this Harvard biologist’s statement exhibits the difficulty many scientists have today with hierarchical thinking. Unless a reality is part of the molecular spectrum its existence is deemed suspect.

I have very little hope of converting thinkers like Mayr to the hierarchical vision. E.F. Schumacher is correct when he says that it is their particular "faith" perspective that leads them to place all reality at the level of the molecular. It is their "faith" that dictates to them that all reality can be collapsed into "matter" and understood exhaustively in terms of that level.5 The most that I can do, therefore, is to show why it is that any conceivable higher level cannot be grasped in terms of the lower.

The Unobtrusiveness of Higher Levels

The higher levels do not interrupt or interfere with the lower. That is why they cannot appear or be understood at the level of the lower. The higher, in Polanyi’s terms, "dwell in" and "rely upon" but are not reducible to the lower and do not suspend the workings of the lower.6 We have seen, for example, that biotic processes do not interrupt or violate the chemical laws that bond carbon to hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Life’s organizational principles and morphogenetic fields do not require that physical laws be suspended in order for life to make its entrance into the scheme of things. Such vitalism is not essential. There is no need to hold that the laws of physics are reversed in the evolutionary process. Instead the very existence of life depends upon the reliable and predictable workings of invariant physico-chemical laws. If carbon "decided" occasionally and capriciously to modify its specific bonding properties we would not have the dependable physical infrastructure necessary for life. Or, moving up to a higher level, if the chemistry of the brain were altered, then the capacity of mental principles to function would be affected also. Life and mind both rely upon and dwell in the lower levels, and they require the reliable performance of chemical and physical laws as a condition for their actualization. The town planner does not alter the specific techniques of bricklaying in order to construct a town; rather he makes use of these already proven techniques, imposes organizational patterns upon them, but in no way interrupts them. Similarly, the organizational principles operative in a hierarchical universe at the levels of life and mind do not interrupt, but make use of, the laws of physics and chemistry.

This is what I mean by the unobtrusiveness of higher levels. They operate in a globally organizational fashion and, therefore, cannot be specified by an analysis of the subordinate particulars of any system. An analysis of the brickwork in a town, no matter how meticulously executed, will not yield an understanding of what a town is. The town’s overall design cannot be found in the joints and component parts of the brickwork. The global organizational pattern does not appear as one fact among others at the level of the town’s masonry. It does not obtrude; it cannot insert itself into this lower level. It can comprehend or globally encompass the level of brickwork, but it cannot be comprehended by an analysis of that level.7

We cannot a priori rule out the possibility that the principles of life and mind relate to the level of matter in an analogously unobtrusive fashion. Perhaps there are extraneous organizational principles somehow influencing (not in any rigid manner, however) lower systems so that the latter take on a specific shape corresponding to the influence of the higher level or field. While we cannot reject the possibility of such fields of influence, neither of course can we render them visible. By definition they do not intrude. Their influence is one of effective non-interference. They comprehend without being comprehensible. They are not subject to our controlling knowledge. They operate according to the mode of Taoism’s wu-wei. Like the Tao they accomplish much without making themselves obvious.

Cosmic Purpose

If there is a divine scheme of purposefulness enveloping and grounding the multiple levels and fields of influence in an emergent universe, then we should not expect or demand that its presence be obvious to us either. If there is a teleological dimension that transcends our own lives and minds, the hierarchical principle should remain our guide when we ask for evidence of its reality. This principle insists that the higher comprehends the lower and dwells in it but is not capable of being grasped in a controlling way by the lower. Each level can only order what lies beneath it. It leaves itself open to being ordered by the levels above it, but is not able to control the higher. If there is any purpose in the universe, therefore, we would not be able to arrive at a controlling knowledge of it. Hierarchical thinking is quite comfortable with this confession.

The Epistemology of Control

We must ask, though, why hierarchical thinking has been rejected to such a large extent by modernity. In a sense the answer to this question will respond to our own inquiry as to why teleological thinking seems so implausible today.

I am convinced that Huston Smith has accurately diagnosed the source of modern anti-hierarchical ideology when he traces it to what he calls (following Ernest Gellner) "the epistemology of control." Although I am not entirely happy with Smith’s recent books on science and religion, especially since they fail adequately to appropriate evolutionary thought, I think there is value in his own hierarchical vision and his critique of the epistemology of control.8

The epistemology of control has its roots not only in our Western philosophical tradition, but also in the very nature of human beings. It is essentially our obsession with power that leads us to think that whatever is real must somehow be subject in principle to mastery by our own intellects. The epistemology of control is simply the carry-over of the will to power into the realm of the mind. It is a refusal to acknowledge the possibility that there are fields of reality that lie off limits, even in principle, to the control of rational consciousness. To open ourselves to such a possibility would require a renunciation of our impulse to control. And this is too high a price for many of us to pay.9

Since the Enlightenment, when the West began to experience the full emergence of the rational subject, we have become increasingly dizzy with the apparent capacity of our subjectivity to master its world. The mind’s sense of liberation from its perennial cosmic matrix has led it to turn back with vengefulness upon the parent that kept it in bondage for so long. This revenge is manifested not only in the destructiveness of modern technological cultures toward the natural world, but also in a relentless epistemological refusal of the mind to surrender itself to anything larger than itself. Rather than acknowledge that it is itself comprehended and contextualized by a transcending field of influence, the mind would prefer to remain in its position of pretended mastery, even if this leads to the isolation of despair.

Of course, this drift of subjectivity away from the cosmos, an alienation prepared for by ancient dualistic mythology, cannot be mended by a restoration of pre-rational, naive consciousness. In the history of consciousness there is no "going home again" to an undifferentiated paradise of uncritical belonging to nature. Once and for all our consciousness has differentiated itself from its cosmic womb. And dualistic mythology has been the midwife of this parturition. In Paul Ricoeur’s terminology, we cannot return to a pre-critical naiveté.10 Neither, however, can we abide forever the estrangement of our minds from nature. Can we not find some sort of reconciliation of mind with nature in a "post-critical naiveté"? Cannot the mind once again feel at home in the cosmos without repressing its critically rational capacities? Need the differentiation of mind from nature entail a separation of the two as it has for most modern thought?

In order to bring about a post-critical reconciliation of mind and nature we need a wider and deeper sense of the cosmos than our religious ancestors had or than modern science has given us since the seventeenth century. I doubt very much if we have yet achieved, let alone surrendered, to such a wider cosmology. Correspondingly, we would need a wider teleology than that of the Greek philosophers or theistic religions of the past if we are once again to see purpose in the scheme of things. Our sense of the cosmic hierarchy today cannot be the same as that of our ancestors. It must be broadened, deepened and framed in terms of the notion of dynamic "fields" of influence and evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary theory, geology, astronomy, biology and modern physics are giving us a new sense of the infinite depths of the cosmos today. They are also calling us to a new form of surrender to mystery, of renunciation of our adolescent aspirations to control. A new sense of being encompassed by the unfathomable has taken hold of those who have deeply felt our post-Newtonian world. Scientists of the stature of Einstein, though they reject traditional ideas of God, have called for a religious response of wonder and awe in the face of the cosmic mysteries. And yet, to a great extent scientific thinkers have clung to the ideal that the objective of science is to eliminate mystery.11 A Promethean refusal to surrender still dominates academic and popular presentations of scientific discoveries. The epistemology of control still reigns. The consequence of this attitude is that it rules out in principle any possibility of there being a more comprehensive dimension transcending the level of our own minds. As Smith says, "To expect a transcendental object to appear on a viewing screen wired by an epistemology that is set for control would be tantamount to expecting color to appear on a television screen that was built for black and white."12


There is an alternative mode of cognition that instead of being dominated by the impulse to control is a product of a desire to surrender to the possible mysteriousness of reality. The name we may give to this type of consciousness is faith. Faith as surrender to mystery has little meaning outside of the context of a hierarchical universe. But in an emergent, hierarchical universe faith is the kind of knowing whereby we at the human level of evolution leave ourselves open to being grasped by a more encompassing field of influence.13 In the cosmic hierarchy the lower cannot comprehend the higher. But the lower can leave itself open to being harnessed and organized by a higher principle.14 Physico-chemical processes leave themselves open to being ordered by biotic principles. Life processes leave themselves open to being ordered by mental or human processes. Faith, in the context of an emergent universe, is simply the stance that we at the human level of emergence would take when we surrender ourselves to being influenced by whatever higher field there may be encompassing the cosmic hierarchy. The fact that this higher field of influence does not show up on our screens wired by the impulse to control is insufficient warrant for us to banish the possibility of its reality. If there is a teleological aspect to our universe its presence would not be detectable by the controlling techniques of scientific method. Instead it would only make itself known to minds which have opened themselves to being ordered or influenced by the higher dimension. This opening of ourselves toward the incomprehensible is what I mean by faith.

I realize that I have enormously oversimplified the notion of faith here. Much more is involved, and different contexts would require our accentuating other aspects of faith. My main concern here, though, is simply to situate faith in the context of an emergent universe, to understand faith cosmologically rather than psychologically. And in such a context I would understand it not as a dogmatic posture but as an exploratory dimension of the emergent cosmos itself. Through faith the evolutionary universe at the hominized level reaches out for and opens itself up to a more comprehensive dimension. What the final result of this self-surrender will be we have no definitive way of knowing. We can only imagine it symbolically. Religious symbols and myths throughout the ages have been one, but only one, way in which our consciousness has allowed the transcendent to take root in, to dwell in and rely upon, our human level of emergence. I understand faith as a much broader term than religion, though. And I think faith is present in movements and individuals that are not "religious" in any conventional sense of the term. Wherever there is an exploratory openness to the new, together with a humble abandonment of the will to subject the universe to the contours of our own limited intellects, there is faith. There is an element of the Pascalian wager, the Kierkegaardian leap, the existentialist risk, involved in any renunciation of the epistemology of control. There is the Abrahamic willingness to set forth into lands unknown, a surrender to the possibility that our lives and minds may be given a meaning by something infinitely larger than themselves. To accept the possibility of a purposeful universe is not as easy as its critics suggest. In fact the surrender of faith is a painful one. It requires our leaving behind the familiar contours of the world we think we have objectively mastered. It demands that we commit ourselves to the adventure of exploratory hope. Such a commitment has never been easy.


1. Cf. Schumacher, pp. 15-38; Smith, Forgotten Truth, pp. 1-18; 34-59; and Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).

2. Cf. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 393- 405; The Tacit Dimension, pp. 29-52.

3. The distinction between emergence and resultance is clarified by C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (London: William & Norgate, 1923).

4. Ernst Mayr, "Evolution," p. 50.

5. Schumacher, pp. 44-45.

6. Polanyi often uses the terms "indwelling" and "relying upon." Cf. The Tacit Dimension, pp. 15-18, 30, 61 and Personal Knowledge, passim. Again, such terms should not be interpreted dualistically or vitalistically.

7. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, pp. 35 ff.

8. See Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, pp. 62-91.

9. Ibid.

10. Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, pp. 347-57.

11. For example, B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), p. 54.

12. Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, p. 114.

13. I have introduced this definition of faith in Nature and Purpose, pp. 60 ff.

14. Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, pp. 40-42.