Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught


As I have stated throughout this book, it is neither possible nor desirable to respond to the question of nature’s purpose in a purely scientific way. Science is capable of dealing only with data that appear at or relate to the secondary pole of perception. At this pole "qualitative" dimensions of the cosmos (beauty, value, aim) have already been left behind for the most part, and what remains is readily transformed into a predominantly "quantitative" field of material for scientific analysis. Science is adequate for describing the relatively abstract remnants of our perceptive encounter with the cosmos. But we would be overburdening its limited methodological possibilities were we to expect it to set forth any statements concerning natures purpose. Instead we must rely upon a kind of discourse that attempts to retrieve and express the data of primary perception. I have suggested that the language of religion may be understood as representing in a mythic and symbolic way at least a portion of the qualitative data given to us in primary perception.

The key to our grasping the relationship between science and religion lies especially in the notion of perception that we have developed in the preceding chapters (especially Ch. III). We have maintained that perception is an active process and not a simple passive reception of impressions. And we have also emphasized its polar nature: at the primary pole of perception we are sensitive to a vast array of cosmic qualities that are left behind by the lucid secondary projections of sense experience. Science, especially since the seventeenth century, has envisaged the world of its formal concern almost exclusively in terms of the quantifiable aspects of nature lifted Out or abstracted by secondary (sense) perception. And, following this focus, cosmologists in the last three hundred years or so have usually ignored the "qualitative" value-laden data given in our primary perception. At times, even to this day as we have seen, they understand the beautiful, the valuable, the purposeful as mere projections of our own "subjective" desires and wishes back onto the blank indifference of the material objects abstracted by science. Their distrust of religious symbols, myths and teleological hypotheses is bound up with a failure to consider the possibility of a primary kind of perception in which beauty, value, significance and purpose constitute ontologically "real" data of experience rather than products of wishful thinking. The intellectual, cultural and theological confusion set loose by the incredibly narrow "modern" notion of perception is, to say the least, enormous.

Our view has been that both science and religion are rooted in experience but that each is based in a different region of the perceptive process. Religion, employing a mythic-symbolic language that is always culturally conditioned and historically contingent refers to the data of primary perception, while science seeks to express correlations among the objects sensed, abstracted or imagined at the pole of secondary perception. Both types of expression have reference to the real world but in quite different modes of symbolic reference. Scientific language, although often purporting to be fundamental, is actually descriptive of an already rather late and abstract realm of objects lending themselves to demarcation by the crisp logic of mathematics. Religious language, however, while lacking the precision of scientific-mathematical discourse, refers us as well to a more fundamental region of experience where the universe has not yet been sharply delineated by our senses or by a quantifying analysis. Just as science must constantly revise its models so as to surmount the deficiencies of its abstract (usually mathematical) models of nature, so also religions are called upon continually to revise their enigmatic representations of cosmic significance in keeping with primary perceptions intuition of an ongoing cosmic adventure. Like science, religion is not always (perhaps not even often) inclined to heed this obligation of accommodating itself to the adventure of revision. As Whitehead accurately points out, much of the conflict between science and religion stems from the reluctance, especially on the part of religion, to embrace adventure. But the conflict also flows in great measure from scientific thoughts failure to move beyond the "sensationalist" doctrine of perception. Perhaps the most impressive way in which scientific thought could display its own alleged espousal of the spirit of adventure today would be for it to review its motives for still clinging uncritically to a shallow notion of perception.

My objective in this book has not been one of demonstrating that there is purpose in nature or of specifying what that purpose is. Instead my intentions have been much more modest. I have simply tried to offer an alternative to the picture of nature inscribed so vividly in modern scientific thinking -- a picture that in principle leaves no openings in nature’s soil for the seeding of divine purpose. I cannot prove conclusively that the predominantly Whiteheadian cosmography I have sketched is adequate either. As a matter of fact I assume that it is not. Everything that I have written demands that we continually revise our representations of the universe, the present one not excepted. However, I do think that the picture of nature, perception, causation, and religion tentatively outlined in this book is more consistent not only with experience and logic but also with science itself than is the questionable materialism that still hovers over modern speculation on matter, life and consciousness.

While they are being uprooted in many quarters of modern thought the premises of scientific materialism and reductionist empiricism still have a tenacious hold on our consciousness. Even though philosophers like Polanyi and Whitehead have offered outstanding critiques of materialism, their thought has not yet penetrated deeply into our intellectual and cultural life. As a result we tend to carry around ridiculously outworn pictures of nature that resist not only teleological interpretations but even the insights of contemporary science. I hope that the present volume has made at least a small contribution to the important enterprise of changing our ideas of the universe so as to open it up more fully to the interpretations of contemporary science and adventurous religion.