Nature and Purpose

by John F. Haught

John F. Haught, who received the Ph.D. from Catholic University, is professor of theology at Georgetown University. He has written extensively on religion and science. His books include The Revelation of God in History; What is God?, The Cosmic Adventure, Nature and Propose, and Religion and Self-Acceptance.

Published by University Press of America, 1980. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock..


(ENTIRE BOOK) The author deals with the question: Do we carry out our projects on a stage that is blind, neutral and indifferent? Or do we have the “backing of the universe”? His answer is based Whitehead’s analysis. On one hand, religion represents, in a mythic and symbolic way, some of the qualitative data given to us in primary perception (intuition). Science, on the other hand, seeks to express correlations among the objects sensed through secondary perception (observation). Neither necessarily contradicts the other.


  • Introduction

    This book represents a challenge to the orthodox cosmography that underlies current thought — that nature is inherently recalcitrant to purpose of any sort.

  • Chapter 1: Dualism

    The dizzying advances in molecular biology blur the former distinctions between man, animal, plant and mineral; and the recent "reductions" of mind to brain are fruits of the methodological imperative to explain the animate and mental in terms of the inanimate and the unconscious.

  • Chapter 2: Physical Reality

    There is no decisive line of demarcation in the universe that segregates experience on the one side from insensitive objects on the other. Rather, the universe is ultimately and pervasively made up of “units of experience.” Following Whitehead, the author avoids the dualism that puts nature in one arena and subjective experience in another.

  • Chapter 3: Perception

    When “perception” is limited to the material presented to our minds by the five senses we are by no means dealing yet in a fundamental way with the reality of the world. Perception may be understood as having two poles, primary and secondary. With primary perception there is a pervasive and vague feeling of the influence of the world upon our being and becoming. Secondary perception deals with spatially clear and distinct objects of sense perception.

  • Chapter 4: Emergence

    Beginning with the conviction that the inanimate world of subatomic particles and molecules described by physics and chemistry constitutes the basic construction material of the plant, the animal organism and the human brain, many scientific thinkers have questioned the “reality” of any other realm than that accessible to physics and chemistry. These reductionist methods contradict the most basic elements of simple logic. Can an essentially careless universe produce beings whose most admirable attribute is their propensity to care? Can a radically impersonal arranging and rearranging of molecules produce persons? Can a non-purposive movement of matter eventuate in beings whose very vitality depends upon their being animated by purpose?

  • Chapter 5: Purpose

    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. The author thinks the word “God” may in part be understood as pointing to such a perspective.

  • Chapter 6: Perishing

    The universe, if it is to become intelligible to us today, actually requires a religious interpretation.

  • Chapter 7: Adventure

    Had God not lured the world on to the creation of beings with the capacity for conscious, rational self-determination, the distinctively human forms of evil on our planet would not occur. We risk suffering that we might have a shot at intense enjoyment.

  • Conclusion

    We would be overburdening science’s limited methodological possibilities were we to expect it to set forth any statements concerning natures purpose. In addition, we tend to carry around ridiculously outworn pictures of nature that resist not only teleological interpretations but even the insights of contemporary science.