Nature and Purpose
by John F. Haught


This book takes up once again the question of nature and purpose. Realizing the controversies that inevitably accompany it, I think, nonetheless, that it is of supreme importance to raise the question again today. In the continuous outpouring of meaning into the construction of our social worlds we must ask over and over: do we have the "backing of the universe"? Or is the pursuit of meaning a striving that has no cooperation at the subhuman levels of nature? Do we carry out our projects on a stage that is blind, neutral and indifferent?

The issue is important if for no other reason than that it has a bearing on the "legitimacy" of our cultural and social worlds which are always built on the premise that purpose is worth seeking out. Our question is also important if it is true that each of us is motivated somehow, to some degree, by a will to meaning. Is this urge to find meaning that seems to be a psychological necessity really a futile stab in the dark? Or is it the welling up in human form of forces that go deep down into the rest of nature? Is there perhaps some specifiable continuity between our own felt need for purpose and whatever energies have given structure to the natural world around us and prior to us?

Further, the question of purpose in nature is of grounding significance for ethics. Issues that press today concerning the environment and the value of life cannot be separated from a fundamental consideration of the options of cosmic pessimism and optimism. Whether we can genuinely trust nature is a question underlying almost every major ethical decision we are called upon to make in our contemporary world. So, if it is possible for us to conceive of purpose in the universe in a reasonable and unsentimental manner, then by all means we should do so. Our moral instincts wither whenever they are cut off from a sense of having any roots in the cosmos.

It is hardly possible for science, all by itself, to answer our question of nature and purpose. Nor does it seem that any purely theoretical response would be convincing anyway. Our concern about purpose arises from depths of consciousness that live more comfortably with symbols and myths than with scientific or philosophical theories. And we could not hope to find purpose in nature simply by being methodologically detached and dispassionate. On the other hand, what we might be able to evince is at least the congruity between our myths of meaning and the fabric of nature disclosed by modern science and consistent cosmological theory. It would be excessively brash to state specifically what nature’s purpose might be. Such a statement could arise only from a perspective we do not have. But it does lie within our capacity at least to challenge the dogmas of scientific materialism that rule out any point of contact between our myths of hope and the apparently unsympathetic world of nature that is often presented to us as the necessary consequent of a scientific approach to reality.

Natural science seems to have produced massive "evidence" to support the widespread, academically endorsed, conviction that nature is impersonal and purposeless. The following quotations from three well -- known biologists represent the consensus of at least a significant number of scientific thinkers. G. G. Simpson, for example, in his book, The Meaning of Evolution, states:

Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.

. . .

Man plans and has purposes. Plan, purpose, goal, all absent in evolution to this point, enter with the coming of man and are inherent in the new evolution which is confined to him.

. . .

Discovery that the universe apart from man or before his coming lacks and lacked any purpose or plan has the inevitable corollary that the workings of the universe cannot provide any automatic, universal, eternal, or absolute ethical criteria of right and wrong.1

Perhaps the most extreme apology for an impersonal universe is that of the Nobel laureate, French biochemist, Jacques Monod:

. . . chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition -- or the hope -- that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised.2

And finally, S. E. Luria, in a recently popular work on biology, succinctly concurs: "The essence of biology is evolution, and the essence of evolution is the absence of motive and purpose."3

A number of elements in modern thought have coalesced to bring about this picture of an evolving universe impermeable to any divine purposive influence. Based especially on mechanistically evolutionist philosophies of nature, this cosmography has left us with the impression that the natural world is radically impersonal, indifferent, insensitive, blind and aimless. Even when this representation of nature is qualified by modern physics (the physics of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, etc.), we are often given the same caricature of our world as indifferent, neutral or even hostile toward our deepest hopes and ideals.4

In the past century theologians have at times attempted to escape the embarrassment of being unable to show how God acts in the natural world as understood by science. They have tried to relate divine influence only to "history" or to inner, personal transformation. The sphere of Gods action, according to a major school of Christian theology, is human "subjectivity," where in the hiddenness of free personal decision the power of God is present. But the realm of freedom and subjectivity according to this interpretation is altogether distinct from that of nature. And the possibility of God’s influencing nature is off limits to theological speculation.5

Thus, to a great extent, theology gives the appearance of having evaded the attempt to relate nature to any divine purposiveness. It seems to have overlooked the obvious fact that every historical event or inner, hidden act of decision and conversion is simultaneously an act occurring within the web of events that make up what science calls "nature." Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufmann is emphatic on this point:

It is impossible to speak of history as though it were a realm of freedom and decision entirely separate from nature. Certainly the biblical perspective is not characterized by such nonsense. It is a measure of the desperation of contemporary theology and faith, in the face of the power of the modern scientific world view . . . that this way out was attempted at all.6

And yet almost every time theological speculation does give birth to hypotheses as to how God influences nature, a host of troublesome questions arises. Why, for example, is the natural world so abundantly inhabited by elements of chance, waste, evolutionary catastrophes, dead ends, struggle for survival, indeterminacy, and other baffling phenomena? If God acts in the natural world, how is it that things have gotten so far out of control? Or does God act only occasionally, locally and temporarily? If so, then is not such a deity capricious, incapable of inspiring worship or gratitude? Further, how can a spiritually transcendent being influence material reality? What kind of causation would be operative in that case? If God is causally related to nature, why is there no overwhelming evidence of it? If God acts creatively, as reported in biblical religion, why does the world come into being over a period of billions of years in an evolutionary way, with no obvious directionality to the process? These and other questions immediately confront any attempts to render intelligible the religious symbols of divine creative or redemptive activity in nature.

A general crisis of meaning in the intellectual world has accompanied the emergence of the picture of an indifferent universe, barren of all purpose. And a great many strains of modern art, philosophy and literature have blossomed in the past two centuries in order to justify human life in this alien world. Some of these expressions have appealed rhapsodically to the ancient tragic vision of existence for support against the indifferent universe. Bertrand Russell provides one of the more familiar of these dismal reactions. Against the hostile world, a world that was not made for us and is unworthy of us, the individual soul, he says, ". . .must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears." 7

Underneath of the extravagant cosmic pessimism of Russell and those of like mind there is a persistent acquiescence to the conventional materialistic view of the universe said to be rooted in scientific method. This view has been held to be unquestionably sound since it has been arrived at by the generally accepted procedures of scientific inquiry. And challenges to it are usually ignored as reactionary naivete.

In this book I hope to present a respectable challenge to the orthodox cosmography that underlies current views (such as those of Russell, Simpson, Monod, and Luria) that nature is inherently recalcitrant to purpose of any sort. My argument will develop initially by way of criticizing the dualism that constitutes the mythic substrate of this academically enlightened conviction. I am aware of course that much modern philosophy, theology and literature has already taken on an anti -- dualistic cast, and I am in sympathy with it. However, usually the protest against the Cartesian isolation of subjectivity from nature is excessively romantic and intellectually feeble. 8 This protest is based on sound feelings that dualisms are unstable and unsatisfying. But the manner in which it argues for a natural world that shows signs of divine care is often philosophically unconvincing.9 I hope that in the following pages a consistent philosophical position, compatible with common sense, science and sound logic will emerge as an alternative to dualism and its offspring, scientific materialism.

In developing my position I shall utilize insights of a number of respected thinkers. Foremost among these will be Alfred North Whitehead, renowned mathematician and scientifically sophisticated philosopher, who developed an elaborate cosmology and metaphysics in protest against dualism and mechanism. I shall also call upon my reading of Michael Polanyi, Bernard Lonergan, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and many other for support in my presentation. It will not be possible for me always to isolate clearly the contributions each of these has made to the following discussion. For I shall be synthesizing their thought with my own and with the relatively simplified vocabulary to be employed in the argument. I hope that I do not flagrantly reduce or dilute their thought in presenting my position to a more general readership than their own works often allow.

Especially in the case of Whitehead’s thought some over- simplification is essential if readers are even to begin an appreciation of his work. Thus I have drastically modified his terminology, preserving intact only a few important expressions and axioms, while still utilizing many of his ideas.

Finally, while I am impressed by the philosophy of nature and a great many of the insights into religion that Whitehead offers, I am not able, so far as I understand them, to align my thought with every aspect of his very undeveloped reflections on God. I accept these reflections, however, as suggestive rather than definitive and regard them as deserving of further development and criticism. Throughout this work the reader will note that I am indebted to Whitehead’s descriptions of physical reality, perception and causation. In presenting my own reflections on God’s relation to nature, however, there are several points where I shall have to depart from Whitehead’s approach.



1. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, Revised edition. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), pp. 314 -- 15.

2. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, trans. by Austryn Wainhouse, (New York: Vintage Books, 1972) pp. 112 -- 13.

3. S. E. Luria, Life: The Unfinished Experiment (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), p. 148. The statements of Simpson, Monod and Luria are reminiscent of some much earlier expressions of cosmic pessimism collected by John Hermann Randall in The Making of the Modern Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, pp. 577 -- 621.

4. Monod, for example, utilizes the principle of indeterminacy to support his vision of the biosphere emerging from pure chance: Chance and Necessity, pp. 114 ff.

5. I am referring especially to the thought of Rudolf Bultmann, but also to other forms of existentialist theology that posit a Neo -- Kantian dichotomy of nature and history. A major exception to this kind of theology is that of "process theology" based on insights of A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. We shall draw upon much of this process theology later on in this book.

6. Gordon Kaufmann, God the Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 122.

7. Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man’s Worship" in Mysticism and Logic (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 52.

8. Theodore Roszak, in spite of his powers of thought and articulation, has not really presented us with a solid philosophical base for his literate protests against dualism and objectivism. Cf. Where the Wasteland Ends (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1973). Nor does the recently popular work of E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper and Row, 1979) offer a satisfactory base for a radical critique of scientism, in that, like other vitalistic reactions it concedes too much to mechanism.

9. Dean Turner’s recent book is full of valuable insights on the issue of science and religion. But it fails to develop a consistent epistemological position and at times becomes excessively emotionalistic in its understandable frustrations with mechanism. Cf. Commitment to Care (Old Greenwich, Connecticut: Devin-Adair Company, 1978).