Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reflections on Teleology in Theology

When I was young I captivated by the natural sciences - - particularly physics.   Now this should not be taken to mean that I actually knew a great deal of physics.   The specifics of physics aside, I loved the idea of physics, that idea that one could describe the initial state of a system, apply the relevant laws of nature, and calculate with certainty the position of the system at a later time.   

It always seemed to me that physics was like logic.   The initial state of the system corresponds to the axiom set, the laws of nature to the transformation rules or allowable logical operations, and subsequent states of the system to theorems.  Just as one can continue to derive theorems in the propositional logic, so can one continue to calculate  future states of a physical system.   The major disanalogy pertains to time.  While it is needed to actualize subsequent states of the physical system, it is irrelevant to logical derivation.   God could, after all, intuit all theorems of a logical system simultaneously because all theorems of a logical system obtain simultaneously.  Things are different in physics.  God could foreknow future states of the system, but there is a sense in which these states are not yet present.   (For purposes of the illustration let us not assume Boethius' view that eternity, for God, is the "whole simultaneous and perfect possession of unbounded life," and thus, for the divine, the future states of any physical system already hold in the fullness of the unbounded present.)  

When I was young it seemed to me that the more mathematics one knew, and the more one knew about the structure of scientific theory, the more one might hope in principle to know something definite about the world.   The world was the kind of thing that could be captured in scientific theory that makes appeal to nothing more than the regularities of nature and the category of efficient causality.   While it has proven very difficult to give an analysis of 'cause' that stands philosophical scrutiny, scientists do seem to make good use of the category and we humans seem to presuppose it in our dealings with the world.  (OK . . . I admit that Kant always seemed right on this point.)    I admit always being tempted to thinking of cause in terms of Mackie's INUS condition:  A causes B if and only if A is an insufficient but necessary part of a unnecessary but sufficient condition.  While I shall spare you the specifics of his account, the idea is simple enough: The short-circuit causes the fire because it is an indispensable part of a complex situation which, together with the short-circuit, causally produces the fire.  

I talk about causality because it is a basic metaphysical building block of what we think the world is.   Whether we think causes are events, facts, features or states of affairs, we think there are  such things.  Our view of the world is one in which there are things (e.g., events) causally related to one another.  Accordingly, one event is said to cause another when it is sufficient to produce it, and, in some sense, when the second event would not have happened were the first not to have happened.  Understood in this way, the causal relation is the metaphysical glue of the universe; it is what gives our experience cohesion and stability.   Chairs simply do not pop in and out of existence in my room because there is no causal mechanism sufficient and necessary for these events to occur.   

Some time ago I simply started paying attention to nature.   Not the nature that I learned about in the physics laboratory, but the nature that I saw all around me as a child on an Iowa farm but somehow had systematically blocked out.   I was watching a swallow  build a nest and thought about giving a nice causal explanation of its movements in the building of this nest.   Now this is not a particularly deep thought.   We all observe nature and we all know that it seems to be purposeful. Watching the activity of the swallow building her nest is that which seems filled with purpose, but if we really know that the causal map of the universe is finally an efficient causal one, this nest-building activity should give a naturalist at least some pause.   How could it be that the swallow goes and searches for mud and straw and seems to stitch them together into a nest to birth and then nurse her young?   

Aristotle would have no problem with this, of course, and most of us never really think twice about the situation.   We know that it is instinct after all that pushes the swallow forward in this way.   Perhaps the possession of genetic information coupled with  rudimentary antecedent conditioning nicely explains this.   It is not that such explanations cannot be given, after all.  How could anyone have a problem somehow thinking that nest-building is irreducibly teleological or purposeful?   All of this is very clear.   

And the clear story proceeds to sketch a view wherein supervenient layers of entities, properties, events and/or states of affairs having putative teleological properties are somehow asymmetrically determined by subvenient layers that finally terminate in a most basic microphysical description that is not teleological at all.   Somehow the higher levels of a system - - the swallow and its nest building, for example - - are realized by a set of microphysical actualizations, the presence of which, metaphysically determines the determinate contour of the swallow's nest building.   The story goes on to say that this swallow's nest building could have obtained were another set of microphysical actualizations present, that, in fact, the swallow's nest building is multiply realizable microphysically.   This is important, as it turns out, because one would not want to reduce the type of swallow nest-building to some particular actualization of the microphsyical.  Reduction, after all, is decidedly out of favor.   While there can be no old-style reduction in this matter, one can simply say that some microphysical actualization or other realizes the swallow's nest-building and seemingly skip merrily home. 

So as I look at the swallow building its nest, I am evidently to cheer because its seemingly purposeful activity is not reducible to the microphysical, but somehow simply realizable by it.  Presumably two atom-by-atom microphysical replicas within a region will yield two replicas of the swallow and its nest building within that region.   There can be no swallow nest-building difference without a microphysical difference!   

But the thought that struck me that day is that just as one can't pull a rabbit out of a hat, one cannot pull macrophysical purpose out of microphysical efficient causal determination.  This thought, which is clearly a thought that most in the western philosophical tradition have had, is not a thought that prohibits our time from such tryings.  We are, after all, physicalists at heart:  We believe that what ultimately exists are those entities which are fated to be quantified over by our final fundamental particle theory.   We know this so deeply, that we simply must start with this and then try, through philosophical reflection (or lack thereof), to provide an account whereby the apparent purposefulness of nature can be made compatible with this deeply-held physicalism.   We thus specify teleonomic laws and give functionalist explanations that work in their own region of explanation, knowing that somehow all of this is realized by microphysical systems far removed from purpose.  We know that philosophy has a humble task, that it probably can't explain or give an adequate account of downward causality - - the notion that the distribution of properties within   lower levels is causally affected by actualization at the upper levels - - but that we can only ask so much of philosophy.   We must keep at the task!!  

Watching the bird make its nest I thought about what it would be like to think our thoughts again for the first time, to roll back the clock, as it were, and see the world without deep physicalist assumptions.  What could be clearer than that the swallow is acting purposefully, that it has a goal it wants to reach and that it has a nicely programmed set of objectives by which to reach that goal!  (Some of you may be groaning at this anthropomorphism.)   The activity of the swallow is best understood by knowing what it is that the swallow is attempting to do.  Maybe the category of  final causality, that most unscientific of all categories of thinking, simply is the best way to explain  why the physical system of the swallow's nest-building has been actualized.  

I like to dream and I started to dream about purpose.   What if many things in nature actually do have a purpose, that is, that their purpose is as objective as the efficient causal chain that produced them?  What if we humans really had such purpose?   What if the universe had such purpose?  What if we went back to Plato and Socrates and started with a macro-world of purpose instead of to Leucippus and Democritus and began with a micro-world of determinacy?   What if instead of making the problem how to get apparent purpose out of an underlying causal mechanism, we made the problem how to get underlying causal determinacy out of a universe clearly filled with purpose?   

Lutheran theology for many reasons has not cared deeply about teleology for the past 200 years.   Granting the truth of Kant's First Critique, and never clearly understanding the subtlety of his Third Critique, we Lutherans have made a cottage industry out of adjusting our semantic fields to make the language of Lutheran theology play in a world without purpose.   Survey the tradition and think about this.   What did Ritschl and his School assume about the metaphysical constitution of the world?  How about Bultmann, Gogarten, and Ebeling?   For these great men, whether the world ultimately had purpose was somehow irrelevant to doing Lutheran theology, to preaching Law and Gospel, to proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus.  One could have highly nuanced and sophisticated theological argumentation without thereby resorting to teleology - - at least teleology in the grand old tradition.  Ritschl simply moved theology to the realm of value, and while his Lotze-inspired understanding of value is not that of today's advocates of understanding theology and religion valuationally, the central move was clear enough.   And if anybody has missed it, here is the central move.  

Theology is unredeemably teleological.   Since the days of Kant, constructive Lutheran theology has attempted to do theology in a way that is indifferent to questions of metaphysical teleology.  It has consistently reminded us to look at Christ and not at the world with its metaphysical questions. But in so doing, the very semantic field of Lutheran theology has changed.  'Creates,' 'redeems' and 'sustains' no longer connote causal production, because there is no divine being existing apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language that has a particular intentionality for the world.  Creation is not a purposeful act of God, but is a natural process that can, in theology, be understood as if it were a purposeful act of the divine.  The meaning of many of the central theological terms have shifted.  This has happened so gradually, that users and hearers of the language have not understood the changes.   

My sense is that we may never get clear on theology again if we don't get clear on teleology.   I have not had time to argue all of that directly here, but will try to do so at a later time.          


Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Christ School of Theology

As many of you know, I have been heading an effort these last six years to build an independent, autonomous, and fully-accredited graduate school of theology and seminary.   The name we have used since the very early days is 'The Institute of Lutheran Theology' (ILT).   Some of you know as well that over the last five years we have referred to the Institute of Lutheran Theology's graduate school specifically as the 'Christ School of Theology'.  

The Christ School of Theology (CST) has been growing nicely and I am happy to report that we easily shattered this semester our old enrollment records.  Many of you realize we have stellar names teaching at CST, e.g., Paul Hinlicky, Bob Benne, Jonathan Sorum, David Yeago, etc.   Since the beginning we have had on our Board Professor Hans Hillerbrand, one of the top names in Reformation scholarship and the former President of the American Academy of Religion.  Our Masters of Sacred Theology (STM) program is growing nicely and we look forward to announcing soon our course offerings for this fall. Stay tuned!      

Students and faculty of CST know that we deliver our courses in a fully interactive video platform that allows each student to see and interact with each other student as well as the professor.   This has worked very well these last five years, but we realize that we need to be able to deliver content in parts of the world where bandwidth does not exist for fully interactive video yet.  We also know that some students actually prefer asynchronous delivery of course content to the interactive approach we routinely employ.  Such asynchronous delivery works nicely for independent study options.  Because of these demands, ILT is beginning work to produce  usable video products that can be delivered by DVD or directly through satellite download.   While most of this content will be password-protected, we shall be broadcasting some on-demand content in the clear.

While we are in the first stages of this, some content is already available.  I am the guinea pig for this ILT "beta project."   If you are interested in lecture content from my "Faith, Knowledge and Reason" course about how philosophy connects to (and has connected with) philosophy, visit either our ILT Christ School of Theology Ustream or YouTube channels.   You can find the latest lecture on Ustream here or on YouTube here.   Four to five lectures are going up each week on these CST channels, as well as Word at Work content for congregations here, or our daily chapel archive here. We are also working to make available some of the last lectures from my "Doktor Vater," George Forell.   I will update you on this project as it progresses.  

What would it have been like to watch the lectures of Walther, Chemnitz, Luther, Thomas or Aristotle?   While we shall never know this, folks at the Christ School of Theology do hope someday to capture and archive quality content from significant Lutheran theological voices.  In doing this, ILT will be doing what it has always done: seek humbly to perpetuate the Lutheran tradition by connecting  the most able and curious of students with the most knowledgeable and experienced of professors.