Author: Mariano Artigas. School Ecclesiastic of Philosophy, University of Navarra. Pamplona (Spain)
Published in The original of article appears as a voice in the "Dizionario Interdisciplinare di Scienza e Fede", edited by Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti and Alberto Strumia, Urbaniana University Press and Citta Nuova, 2002.article unpublished in Spanish.2002


  1. The concept of purpose

  2. Finalist dimensions of nature

  3. Existence and scope of natural purpose

  4. Natural purpose in today's worldview

  5. Teleology and transcendence

  6. Nature and providence

  7. The intelligibility of nature

  8. Bibliography

Purpose occupies a central place in thinking about nature. From antiquity to the present day, the main differences of opinion in the Philosophy of nature largely relate to this problem. The "finalists" affirm that there is a directionality in nature which is to be interpreted as finality; this position corresponds to the natural human attitude towards nature, and easily fits in with the affirmation of a divine providence which governs the course of natural phenomena. The "anti-finalists", on the other hand, deny that there is any finality in nature, or at least that we can know it, and usually reject the existence of divine providence; their arguments are often based on the progress of science.

I will first define the concept of "natural finality". I will then analyse the finalistic dimensions that exist in nature. I will then attempt to show that there is finality in nature by determining its scope, and I will examine the implications of the current worldview with respect to the problem of natural finality. These considerations will provide the basis for examining whether natural finality refers to a divine plan that makes it possible.

The concept of purpose

The notion of an end has three main meanings: the end of a process, goal of a trend, and goal of a plan.

First of all, the end designates the end of something. In the case of entities, the end refers to their limits (the end of a book or a path, for example). If we are dealing with processes that take place over time, the end designates the last phase with which they end or terminate (the end of reading a book or walking a path, for example). These two ends are aspects of the same reality, considered in its static or dynamic aspect: the end of a process is an entity or, in general, a state of affairs reached through the process. If we focus on dynamism and activity, end means "end of a process".

Secondly, the end is the goal towards which an action or a process tends. This sense is added to the first: not every term is a goal, but every goal is the term of a tendency. The concept of purpose is closely related to that of tendency, which serves as a criterion for recognising the existence of purpose. In this sense, end means "goal of a tendency".

Thirdly, when the term is achieved by voluntary action, the end is the goal of a deliberate project , the "goal" sought by the action. This third sense assumes the first two, and adds to them the intention of the subject. Irrational living beings are capable of seeking goals agreement with their possibilities of knowledge, following their natural inclinations. In the case of intelligent and free subjects, capable of proposing goals, this sense of purpose is identified with the "goal of a plan".

On the other hand, a distinction can be made between a "subjective" finality, which is found in agents who act with knowledge of the end of their actions, and an "objective" finality, which does not depend on knowledge. My reflection focuses on the purpose of the second subject, as it exists in the activity of natural beings that is not provoked by knowledge, either because they are beings that do not possess any subject of knowledge, or because they are processes that, although they exist in beings capable of knowing, are carried out automatically without the intervention of knowledge. I will refer, therefore, to the objective finality of subject tendential, which is the subject of finality most directly related to the sciences.

Finality is opposed to chance. We say that something happens by chance when it is the result of accidental, unforeseen coincidences that do not respond to a determined cause. On the other hand, finality implies that there are tendencies that explain the effects; the effect is directly due to its own causes, not to the accidental coincidence of those causes.

Finalist dimensions of nature


There are three dimensions that summary are the main manifestations of natural purpose: directionality, cooperativity and functionality. Directionality refers to the existence of tendencies in natural processes. Cooperativity refers to the ability of entities and natural processes to integrate into unitary outcomes. And functionality expresses that many parts of nature make possible, by their activity, the existence and activity of the systems of which they are part.

Let us first consider directionality. Natural processes do not unfold arbitrarily. On the contrary, they originate from specific entities and unfold from agreement with dynamic patterns. Natural dynamism unfolds along privileged channels. Of course, there is a great variety of possible processes depending on the concurrence of the different dynamisms, but the processes revolve around specific patterns: in nature, although not everything is patterns, everything is articulated around patterns.

This happens from the lowest to the most complex levels of organisation. At the fundamental level, the four basic interactions have well-defined intensity and effects, and condition the development of all natural processes. The same is true for the activity of atoms and molecules, and for the activity Biochemistry in life processes. When we go into living organisms, directionality reaches its cima, and it is truly astonishing: the unfolding of information Genetics, the intracellular activities, the speech between cells, the vital functions, are manifestations of a clear and specific directionality. On Earth and in the stars, specific and directional dynamisms also unfold. The existence of dynamic patterns, even in processes that are often described as chaotic, is becoming more and more evident.

Science assumes that there is directionality in nature and seeks precisely to determine its modalities. Its success implies an increasingly concrete knowledge of the directionality of natural processes.

We can therefore affirm that natural dynamism unfolds in a directional way, which is enough to affirm that there is a "weak" directionality in nature, which, although genuine, does not guarantee the achievement of certain goals. This is enough to affirm that there is a "weak" directionality in nature, which, although genuine, does not guarantee that certain goals will be reached. Can we go a step further and affirm the existence of a "strong" directionality, i.e. that there are tendencies towards concrete goals?

Here we encounter a difficulty B, because the concrete unfoldings of natural dynamism depend on very varied circumstances which, to a large extent, respond to accidental coincidences. Although natural dynamism revolves around guidelines, the results of its unfolding are not determined, because different dynamisms concur in the processes and nothing guarantees that concrete results will be reached. This is tantamount to recognising that outcomes are not necessary, but contingent. Under these conditions, how can it be said that there are trends towards certain goals?

This difficulty is insurmountable if we think of goals that are absolutely necessary. If directionality is identified with the existence of tendencies that necessarily lead to concrete goals, it must be concluded that such directionality does not exist in nature.

At first glance, this conclusion seems to destroy the hope of finding a foundation for natural finality. However, this is not the case. We are simply forced to introduce a nuance about the existence and scope of natural finality. This qualification concerns the conditions that guarantee the goals of directionality. There are goals determined to the extent that factors intervene which, so to speak, impose their law. In many cases, an organisation exists or factors intervene which, within a wide range of circumstances, ensure that certain goals are achieved. There are many situations in which there is a stable organisation and thus tendencies towards certain goals. This statement does not prejudge the problem of indeterminism, which is compatible with the existence of directionality and tendencies.

We can speak of Degrees of directionality. It will be, for example, simple potentialities, or capacities closer to their update, or real tendencies that will lead to concrete results. In the end, it is always a question of potentialities whose update is only possible, or probable, or certain.

Cooperativity is a particular subject of directionality. Concretely, it is a potentiality that refers to the integration of different factors into a unitary result : holistic systems, emergent properties, new types of dynamism, i.e. new types of structuring and dynamism that are not reduced to the simple juxtaposition of the initial factors, are produced.

The knowledge of many modes of cooperativity in nature is one of the main results of recent scientific progress, in which synergy or cooperative action occupies a prominent place. Cooperativity makes morphogenesis or the production of specific holistic patterns possible, and is at the basis of the specificity of nature.

If one considers cooperativity from the diachronic perspective of evolutionary theories, it is easy to see that successive integrations lead to new types of organisation which, in turn, open up new possibilities and close down others. The further the organisation progresses, the more new routes open up that did not exist before. In this sense, the inconsistency of some critics of evolution who argue that it is highly improbable that all the components of a new organism, or all the variations needed for a new organ to emerge, will coincide by chance, can be underlined. B Indeed, the improbability is enormous if you think of a random mixture of completely independent factors, as would be the case if you were to randomly mix the letters or words that make up a literary work; on the other hand, the probability increases dramatically when you realise that the components are not independent, that there are cooperative tendencies, and that each achievement opens up new cooperative potentialities that did not previously exist and that are becoming more and more specific. The probabilities are even greater if one takes into account that, in addition to simple cooperativity, there is a greater Degree of directionality, in which there may be regulating factors whose variations may explain the simultaneous production of a whole set of coordinated changes. This new Degree is functionality.

Functionality is often used to express that a part plays a certain role within a larger whole. Nature is organised in such a way that there are systems that have a B functionality. And one can also speak of the functionality of nature as a whole, in that it provides the conditions that make human life possible.

The existence of functionality is evident in living things. Any treatise on biology can be considered as a systematic exhibition of functionality in living things.

Can one speak of functionality at the physico-chemical level? Obviously, the systems at this level do not possess the typical characteristics of living beings, and it does not seem logical to attribute the same subject functionality to them; for example, it makes sense to speak of the functions performed by red blood cells, the liver or the nervous system, but it would be paradoxical to speak of the functions performed by an electron in the atom or an atom in the molecule. The reasons for this difference are obvious: a living being possesses typical tendencies whose realisation is achieved by the functions performed by its components, whereas it does not seem possible to attribute similar tendencies to physico-chemical entities.

However, one can also speak of functionality at the physico-chemical level if one takes into account its double integration with the biological level: as a component and as an environment. The functionality of living organisms depends on their physico-chemical components, and this functionality is only possible when there is an environment that provides the appropriate conditions. In the first case (components) we can speak of an internal functionality, and in the second (environment) of an external functionality.

We can take our considerations further, if we consider that different natural systems are integrated into larger systems. To the extent that a whole set of natural entities can be considered as a true system, an internal functionality can be attributed to its components. This is the case, for example, of ecosystems, in which there are living (the species that inhabit it) and non-living (the environmental factors) components; of the biosphere, whose components extend to the lithosphere, the atmosphere and the oceans, in addition to the living ones; and one can even speak of the total system of nature, since there are close relationships of dependence between many of its parts.

It is often said that many cases of apparent finality are, in reality, no more than examples of an external utility, and cannot be used to argue for finality. This objection has a part of reason; it would not be correct, for example, to speak of natural purpose at purpose of a climate or vegetation favourable to certain species. However, many cases of external utility become cases of internal functionality if it is a matter of conditions that are encompassed, as components, in larger systems. Continuing with the previous example, certain climatic conditions and the existence of plants are indispensable conditions for human existence; therefore, if they are considered as systems that include human life, these components can be said to have a genuine internal functionality.

Functionality is the dynamic aspect of structuring. The structuring of organisms and their parts is the basis that makes functionality possible; and this is a manifestation of the intertwining of dynamism and structuring. This is evident in the living. But one can also speak of the functionality of the different natural levels insofar as one is the condition of possibility of the others.

Indeed, the continuity of the different levels means that one is the condition of possibility of the others (not in all their aspects, but in some of them or as a whole). The physico-chemical level provides the constituents of all the others; the astrophysical provides the constituents of the geological, which performs, in part, a similar function with respect to the biological; the astrophysical and geological levels provide the environment necessary for the existence of the biological; and, at the biological level, some organisms are the condition of possibility of others: for example, plants are indispensable for the existence of heterotrophic life.

If we now contemplate the conditions of possibility of human life, we can easily see that the organisation of natural levels makes obvious sense. It would not be correct to assert that the existence of each component of nature must be explained in terms of particular human convenience; this would be a naïve and untenable anthropocentrism. But there is a legitimate anthropocentrism, which considers the human person as the cima of nature, and recognises that the existence of man is only possible because there is a grand functionality in which all other levels of nature are involved. Therefore, if it is recognised that human life has a value, it is possible to attribute a meaning to the organisation of nature in function of human life.

In nature there is not only functionality, but also a B functionality. It is not necessary here to analyse particular examples, which are, moreover, very abundant; the progress of molecular biology suffices to show the enormous Degree sophistication of the biological Structures and of the corresponding functionality. It is a matter of coordinations involving entire series of processes, and they are carried out with admirable precision. It can be said that in many respects the functional organisation of nature far surpasses human achievements: in variety, richness, harmony, efficiency, simplicity, beauty and imagination.


Existence and scope of natural purpose

Can we affirm that there is finality in nature? And if so, what does it consist of, and what is its scope?

With the above considerations in mind, it is not difficult to answer these questions. Indeed, we have analysed the directionality, cooperativity and functionality that exist in nature, and now it only remains to synthesise the results of that analysis and examine their implications.

Directionality exists in nature, both in a weak and a strong sense. The existence of weak directionality means that natural processes are articulated around dynamic patterns and that there are therefore general tendencies, the update of which depend on the factors involved in each case. If the processes take place in organised systems that are sufficiently stable, there is also strong directionality, i.e. tendencies towards particular, well-defined goals.

There is also a special directionality subject which is cooperativity. Both entities and natural processes manifest a cooperativity that allows their integration into new unitary outcomes, and this cooperativity extends to all levels of natural organisation.

Finally, in unitary systems and processes there is functionality: the components cooperate with each other, making the activity of each other and of the whole possible. This functionality is evident in the case of individual organisms; but it also extends to larger systems and even to the total system of nature, because of the continuity and mutual dependence that exists between natural levels. When nature is considered as the condition of possibility for human life, the functionality of the rest of nature with respect to man can be affirmed.

It might be objected that natural finality, as I have characterised it, is limited to the collection of characteristics of nature whose existence is self-evident. This is indeed the case. There is, of course, another problem connected with natural finality: that of its ultimate explanation. This problem requires further consideration, which extends to metaphysics and natural theology. For the moment, I have limited myself to an examination of the finalistic dimensions of nature at goal , in order to set up instructions on which further reflection can be based. Therefore, if my conclusion only includes aspects on which all must agree, it will be a sign that I have achieved my goal.

Directionality, cooperativity and functionality are dimensions that refer to the way of being of natural entities and processes; they respond to their dynamism and structuring, they are not something superadded, nor are they accidental results: they are constitutive dimensions of the natural. They are modes of action, which manifest modes of being. Directionality and cooperativity are equivalent to the existence of specific potentialities of subject tendency, whose update does not occur necessarily, but according to circumstances; functionality corresponds to the unfolding of these tendencies when the circumstances that allow the existence of stable organisations are present.

The concept of natural purpose, as I have delimited it, represents real dimensions of nature; and these dimensions refer to the way the natural acts and thus to its way of being. These dimensions must be taken into account when trying to achieve an accurate representation of nature, as they express important characteristics of the natural: if they are left out, it will be impossible to adequately reflect the dynamic and tendential character of nature, which leads to systems whose organisation has a high degree of functionality Degree .

Natural purpose in today's worldview


There are three main areas in which natural purpose is challenged and confirmed in the current worldview: cosmology, evolution, and self-organisation.

First, in the field of cosmology, the model of the big bang and current physics show that our world depends on a whole series of coincidences and balances: if the ratio of subject to anti-subject at the beginning of the universe had been slightly different, or if the mass of the neutron were not slightly higher than that of the proton, or if a set of very specific physico-chemical properties did not exist both in the present and in the past, life on Earth and our own existence would not have come about.

On that basis, what has been called the "anthropic principle" has been proposed. In 1955, G. J. Whitrow stressed that scientific explanations that are incompatible with the results that have actually occurred in our world are not admissible. Robert H. Dicke articulated this idea in 1957, arguing that biological factors place conditions on the values of basic physical constants. In 1974, Brandon Carter proposed the term "anthropic principle", claiming that man does not occupy a central place in the universe, but does occupy a privileged position. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler published a book in 1986 in which they gave a comprehensive defence of the anthropic principle.

A weak formulation of the anthropic principle is usually distinguished from a strong formulation. In its weak or moderate version, the principle states that both the initial conditions of the universe and its laws have to be compatible with the existence of the nature we observe, including ourselves. The conditions necessary for the existence of human life encompass a broad set of physical, chemical, geological, geological, astronomical and biological factors, which are very specific. This moderate version merely states that the conditions necessary for our existence must have been and continue to be in place, which is true. This formulation of the anthropic principle can serve as a heuristic guide , to exclude, in scientific study, whatever is incompatible with the characteristics that nature in fact possesses.

In its strong version, the anthropic principle postulates, in a way, the existence of a purpose that encompasses the whole process of nature's training process. There is nothing to object to this assertion if it is formulated as a philosophical reflection based on the data provided by the sciences. But sometimes those who defend one of the strong versions of the anthropic principle seem to try to present it as if it were a part of science itself, to which not a few scientists rightly protest. Sometimes a strong version of the anthropic principle is defended without admitting, on the other hand, the existence of a God staff; this results in somewhat confused positions, of subject more or less pantheistic. In any case, the echo that the anthropic principle has found in the field of cosmology shows that it is very difficult to leave aside the finalist dimensions of nature.

Secondly, although the progress of biology leads us to a better and better understanding of the finalistic dimensions of nature, one of the main objections raised against natural finality is the one that comes, in the field of biology, from the theory of evolution.

The problem posed by evolutionism is that living organisms could be explained from their origin, by evolution from less organised forms, through efficient natural causes: specifically, according to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, as the result combination of random variation and natural selection. Novelties would be produced by chance, and the adaptive skill would cause only the most adapted organisms to survive, giving the impression of programmed progress.

According to one widely held interpretation, evolutionism would dislodge finality from the biological world; it would render any finalistic explanation useless, because the apparent finality of living things would be explained by their evolutionary origin. Moreover, it could not be claimed that man is the end of evolution, since evolution depends on random and unpredictable factors. Finally, evolution would also invalidate the teleological argument (divine plan), which would be replaced by naturalistic explanations (the combination of chance and necessity). I will examine these three objections in order to show that evolution does not eliminate finality.

Evolution does not provide a complete explanation of natural purpose. Indeed, it does not explain that there exist in nature some very specific virtualities, whose update leads to new virtualities which are also very specific, and so on. Evolution is unintelligible without admitting the existence of tendencies and co-operativeness. Evolution does not explain what the highly specific natural dynamism on which it is based consists and where it comes from. The explanation of origins is only part of the explanation of purpose. On the other hand, whatever their origin, there is a high Degree of purpose in organisms, and resource to the binomial chance-selection is not enough to explain completely the production of such a sophisticated, coordinated and functional organisation.

Evolution is not incompatible with man's central place in nature. To be sure, man as goal of evolution is a contingent result : if we consider the natural conditions that make human existence on earth possible, there was a time when they did not exist, there will be a time when they will not exist, and they may never have existed. But man is at the pinnacle of the evolutionary process: not in every respect, but in the subtlety of material organisation, and certainly in the spiritual dimensions which transcend the realm of the natural; and there is nothing to prevent man from being the intended end of a higher plan, which, while it acts using natural possibilities, is above them.

Evolution is compatible with the existence of a creator God and the consequent divine plan for creation, because evolutionism is on another level. This is recognised by almost all evolutionists, including those who are agnostics. Evolution would only be incompatible with a static creation (according to which nature would have been created in its present state) or with a linear plan (evolution would always be linear, progressive and perfect in every respect). It is understandable that only some fundamentalists who hold too literal an interpretation of the biblical account, and some scientists and philosophers who hold scientistic positions, deny the compatibility between evolution and the divine plan. It can even be said that the evolutionary process is difficult to understand if there is no subject direction or plan: this process presupposes the existence of very specific initial potentialities, whose successive actualisations over an enormous period of time lead to new potentialities that are again very specific, and this happens many times; moreover, it has been necessary the coincidence of many factors that have made possible this enormous chain of update of potentialities.

Finally, the new paradigm of self-organisation, which is now widely spread, encompasses a set of theories concerning different levels of nature. The basic idea is the spontaneous training of order from states of lower order, from which the name self-organisation is taken. This paradigm can be summarised in a nutshell as follows: subject possesses its own dynamism which, under the right conditions, gives rise to synergistic or cooperative phenomena, whereby a higher (more complex or more organised) order of subject is spontaneously formed. Thus the universe with all its parts would have been formed.

It is therefore emphasised that nature has its own dynamism, which unfolds in a directional way. Indeed, self-organisation is based on the existence of tendencies and cooperativity. But contingency is also emphasised. The update of tendencies depends on random circumstances. The results are not necessary, different ones could occur if the circumstances were different. The complexity of real processes highlights the contingency of the successive stages of the evolutionary process.

An element core topic in the new paradigm is the central role played by information: natural dynamism is structurally deployed from agreement with patterns; this deployment produces new spatial Structures which, in turn, are source of new dynamisms; and all this works through information that is structurally stored and deployed through processes in which information is encoded and decoded, transcribed, translated and integrated. Information becomes materialised rationality, because it contains and transmits instructions, it directs and controls, and all this through Structures spatio-temporal.

This opens up new perspectives for the Philosophy of nature: it is not only possible to retain the main old problems and results, but also to reformulate and extend them in a new and much richer context. In this perspective, purpose occupies a central place. Indeed, the importance of dynamic, holistic and directional factors is emphasised, as well as the role of information.

Self-organisation is sometimes understood as a naturalistic pan-Darwinism that would definitively eliminate the problem of the radical foundation of nature: nature would be self-sufficient. However, rigorous reflection on the current worldview has nothing to do with this naturalism. Experimental science owes its great progress to the adoption of a method which, at the same time, has precise limits: it does not thematically study the philosophical dimensions of nature, but it assumes them and provides elements to study them in depth. And the explanation of the philosophical dimensions refers to questions about the radical foundation of nature.

Teleology and transcendence

Since the current worldview stresses the existence of finalistic dimensions in nature, it thus broadens the basis of the teleological argument.

Among the proofs of God's existence, the teleological argument has occupied a prominent place throughout history and today. It was articulated with particular vigour by Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle's ideas but placed them in a new context. Throughout his work he proposed different formulations of the argument, among which the "fifth way" to demonstrate the existence of God stands out.

This is the text of the fifth way: "The fifth way is taken from the government of the world. We see, in fact, that some things which have no knowledge, namely natural bodies, work for an end: this is evident from the fact that they always or very often work in the same way to achieve the best; whence it is evident that they reach the end not by chance, but intentionally. But beings who do not have knowledge do not tend to the end unless they are directed by some cognising and intelligent being, as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore there is an intelligent being by whom all natural things are ordered to the end: and this being we call God" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 2, a. 3, c.).

The argument refers to natural bodies ("corpora naturalia"), which lack knowledge. It includes, therefore, all natural activity that unfolds independently of knowledge: that of non-living beings, and also the activity of living beings that does not depend on knowledge (organic activity, with all its functions). It is affirmed that natural bodies act in the same way always or almost always ("semper aut frequentius"). This is an affirmation drawn from ordinary experience and, from this point of view, it offers no difficulty: it is true, both in the sphere of the living and in that of other natural entities. Thomas Aquinas limits himself to the ordinary knowledge , but his affirmation can be extended, without difficulty, to nature as it appears to the current scientific worldview.

The constancy in the way of acting shows that natural activity corresponds to tendencies arising from the nature of bodies. The regularity of natural activity makes it possible to affirm its finalistic character: it is excluded that natural bodies reach their end by chance, because they reach it by acting in the same way always or almost always, and the effects of chance are not regular. Natural dynamism is tendential, and tendencies are directed towards the attainment of an end which is identified with a good.

The reference letter to the good is the central point of the argument. It is affirmed that natural bodies act in view of an end ("operantur propter finem"), arrive at the end ("perveniunt ad finem"), and tend towards the end ("tendunt in finem"), and that this end is something optimal. This reference letter not only to the good, but to the optimum, is fundamental: without it, the argument would not be able to affirm the existence of God. The current worldview provides new instructions to verify the value of natural activity and its results: in fact, it allows us to know in detail the perfection of natural mechanisms in individuals, and the organisation of nature in different cooperative levels that make human existence possible.

We are therefore dealing with a highly directional and rational natural activity, carried out by beings that lack knowledge. Natural bodies cannot have this directionality by themselves, for they lack intelligence. Hence, it is necessary to have recourse to an intelligence capable of giving a reason for natural tendencies and their ordering towards the good. It must therefore be an intelligence that is completely superior to nature; moreover, an intelligence that has foreseen the mode of being of the natural and the tendencies that derive from it: and only a creative God staff can give the natural its being and its mode of being.

Indeed, the ordering intelligence corresponds to the Being who orders all natural things towards their end ("a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur in finem"). It must therefore be a question not only of a being distinct from nature, but precisely of the Being who is the author of nature, because only that Being can produce tendencies which are inscribed in the interior of natural bodies. It is not enough, therefore, to have recourse to a being who orders the bodies from without, by impressing on them some subject of motion: it is necessary to admit the existence of a God staff creator.

The fifth way retains its value today, because all of the above aspects are consistent with today's scientific worldview. It can even be said that scientific progress significantly broadens the scope of the facts on which the considerations contained in the fifth way are based. In this sense, the fifth way is reinforced by this progress.

The fifth way focuses on the individual purpose proper to each body. Other Thomistic formulations of the teleological argument stress the cooperation of different agents towards the same end: the order of nature as a whole (Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra los gentiles, I, c. 13; III, c. 64; De potentia, q. 3, a. 6, c.; Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, book XII, chapter 10, lectio 12; Commentary on the Gospel of John, prologue; Commentary on the Apostles' Symbol, article 1). The core of the argument is the same, whether the focus is on individual or cooperative aspects. However, in relation to scientific knowledge, the consideration of the cooperative order, which is central in today's world view, is very strong.

Some Thomistic firmulations of the teleological argument are much more extensive than the fifth way and include detailed philosophical analyses of natural finality that are also fully up to date. For example, Thomas Aquinas alludes to those who seek to explain nature by recourse to material cause and agent cause alone, and points out that these causes are involved in the production of effects, but are insufficient to explain their goodness (Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q. 5, a. 2).

It is interesting to underline why, in Thomistic argumentation, explanations that rely solely on necessity and chance are judged insufficient. The reason is different in the two cases. As far as the material and agent causes are concerned, a certain necessity corresponds to these causes; therefore, they allow us to understand that the activity of the bodies is carried out in a constant way, but they do not explain that an optimal result is achieved: the material and agent cause are blind with respect to the goodness of the result. As far as chance is concerned, it is claimed that chance does not explain that the activity of bodies is carried out in a constant way: chance is blind with respect to the constancy of action. Finally, neither is a sufficient explanation obtained by resorting to the combination of necessity and chance; indeed, even if it is admitted that this combination can partially explain the training of nature, it is insufficient to explain its perfection and, moreover, it does not explain its radical foundation, since it always refers to previous physical situations (curious as it may seem to the modern reader, this possibility, which is insisted upon in our time at purpose of evolutionism, was expressly contemplated by Thomas Aquinas, who took up what Aristotle had said on this question many centuries before: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, book II, chapter 8, lectio 12).

In final, the natural purpose, which consists of a habitual tendency towards something optimal, postulates an intelligence: to relate, to direct, to order towards an optimal goal which is reached in a habitual way, are operations proper to an intelligence. And, if we take into account that this direction affects natural tendencies and, therefore, the way of being of the natural, it is logical to affirm the existence of God staff creator. The current worldview provides the teleological argument with a basis that is more complex than that provided by ordinary experience, but far surpasses it in depth and precision.

Nature and providence


The final cause acts in two ways. On the one hand, as goal foreseen by the agent, and on the other hand, as a tendency towards a certain goal . All beings have tendencies, which respond to their way of being, but only intellectual agents can consciously and freely set themselves goals.

In the first part of the teleological argument it is stated that natural beings lacking knowledge possess constant tendencies whose update produce optimal results, and that the constancy of the tendencies sample that these beings do not act by chance, but of agreement with the necessity characteristic of agent causes. Then it is added that the production of optimal results sample that these results are a goal foreseen by an intellectual agent. Therefore, there is a double reference letter to chance: it is denied that natural tendencies respond to chance, and it is also denied that the goodness of results can be due exclusively to the chance confluence of necessary causes. This double reference letter corresponds to the two levels of finality. Consequently, when natural finality is denied, it is necessary to specify to which aspect this denial refers, i.e., whether it is denied that natural tendencies exist, or that there is a higher finality which is related to the divine government of nature.

If one denies that tendencies exist, one has to face not only the evidence of ordinary experience, but also the achievements of scientific progress, which amply underline the existence of directionality in nature.

It is often not denied that there are particular trends in nature, but that there is an overall trend in evolution. It is claimed that evolution proceeds in an opportunistic way, that it could not be the result of a premeditated plan. Under these conditions, how can one still speak of a divine plan?

However, this difficulty disappears when it is realised that the divine plan does not imply a rectilinear evolution, always progressive, without accidents: it is more logical to suppose that God relies on the complexity of natural causes to realise his plan. The existence of a divine plan is fully congruent with the complex character of evolution. Moreover, the complexity of the universe thus acquires a new significance. It can be understood, for example, that God may have wanted millions of galaxies to exist so that the earth and mankind could exist. Indeed, current cosmological theories claim that the heaviest atoms have been produced in the interior of stars, and this may have had to happen many millions of times to finally produce a single planet with the specific characteristics of the Earth. The existence of millions of galaxies and stars, which would otherwise seem unnecessary, may have been necessary for human life to become possible through natural processes (this does not exclude the possible existence of life elsewhere in the universe).

There is no simple harmony between divine action and the activity of nature. If natural activity responds to the divine plan, it must be affirmed that God not only respects it, but also wills it positively, although God can also produce effects that go beyond the ordinary course of nature. Therefore, it is congruent that the divine plan is to have the unfolding of natural dynamism. In this perspective it is understandable, for example, that the divine plan is compatible with a zigzagging unfolding of natural dynamism that can produce outcomes that are not destined to survive, and with the existence of mechanisms in which necessity and chance, variation and adaptation combine. The affirmation of the divine plan is not the same as affirming that everything that happens in nature is good by any standard.

The existence of a higher plan makes it possible to understand the existence of nature in depth. No doubt, it implies a certain mystery, but it is the mystery that we logically encounter in the face of the divine. On the other hand, if the existence of the divine plan is denied, nature is shrouded in an irrational mystery, and there is a serious danger of absolutising the partial explanations provided by the sciences.

The main difficulty that can be raised against the teleological argument is the existence of evil. Thomas Aquinas devoted great attention to this problem throughout his work. In the Summa Theologica, in expounding the five ways, he summed up his answer in a few words: God permits evil in order to safeguard greater goods. This idea applies to two different cases: moral evil, due to the misuse of freedom on the part of the human person, and physical evil, which is properly related to natural finality.

In the case of moral evil, which is sin, and is evil in the radical sense, it is not easy to explain how its elimination could be reconciled with human freedom. Therefore, it is understandable that God permits it, because the possibility of moral evil responds to the existence of human freedom, which is a still higher good.

Physical evil, to which the teleological argument properly refers, can be justified in two ways. Firstly, by taking into account that it is only a relative evil that can be ordered to a higher good, which is the spiritual good. And secondly, by noting that particular physical evils can be integrated into higher goods even in the physical order. The existence of physical evil is not opposed to divine goodness: it seems inevitable that there will be conflicts between different particular goods, but these conflicts can be integrated into a higher good.

Thomas Aquinas expressly affirms that God created the universe for man. He recalls that finality can be spoken of in two senses: as a natural tendency, or as the plan of an intelligent agent, and he affirms that man is the end of creatures in both senses (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences, book II, distinction I, question II, article III, body).

To assert that God created the universe with man in mind requires reasoning beyond the scope of teleological argument. But such a claim is fully congruent with the existence, at all levels of nature, of co-operative natural tendencies that make human life possible. From this perspective, the application of the notion of the good to nature implies a legitimate anthropocentrism, reflecting man's central place in the cosmos.

The intelligibility of nature


Nature becomes partially intelligible when it is viewed in the light of the knowledge provided by ordinary experience and by the sciences. But it acquires its meaning plenary session of the Executive Council when we contemplate the system of nature in the light of its radical foundation and of human life.

From the finalist perspective, the activity of nature appears as the work of an "unconscious intelligence": nature does not deliberate, but acts as if it really possessed a rational capacity.

The expression "unconscious intelligence", if interpreted literally, is contradictory, because it contains two incompatible terms. Therefore, it can only be used as a metaphor. But the metaphor has a real basis: nature's operations are directional and, moreover, cooperate in producing results that, in many respects, far exceed what can be achieved by the most sophisticated technology. In that sense, nature surpasses human reason, which, on the other hand, can only produce artefacts to the extent that it knows and uses natural laws.

Attempts are sometimes made to explain nature exclusively in terms of its composition and laws: order would be the result of random combinations of processes, and purpose would be only apparent. From this perspective, and starting from the civil service examination between chance and finality, the more the role of chance is emphasised, the less room there is for finality. However, the civil service examination between chance and finality is not absolute, because chance requires finality. Indeed, it would not even be possible to speak of chance if there were no directionality, just as it would be meaningless to speak of disorder if there were no subject of order.

Criticisms of teleology often assume that there is an absolute contradiction between chance and finality; consequently, explanations involving chance are seen as arguments against finality. But there is no such absolute contradiction between chance and finality. By affirming finality, one does not exclude any subject of chance. It is simply emphasised that chance, and in general any combination of blind forces, cannot be considered as a total explanation.

For example, to explain the origin of a meaningful sentence in a given language, it is not enough to prove that there is some probability that it was produced by random combinations of letters: if there is no prior language, with its alphabet, dictionary and grammatical rules, no combination of letters can form meaningful terms. There must be intelligence at the origin. This is equally valid with respect to nature. The affirmation of finality is tantamount to affirming that the intelligibility of nature is ultimately based on intelligent activity. Unconscious intelligence must be based on conscious intelligence.

In commenting on Aristotle's ideas on natural finality, Thomas Aquinas proposed a kind of definition of nature, viewed from its radical metaphysical foundation, which is highly original and profoundly superior to Aristotle's ideas, as well as being surprisingly consistent with today's worldview. He says: "nature is, precisely, the plan of a certain art (namely, the divine art), impressed on things, by which things themselves move towards a certain end: as if the craftsman who makes a ship could grant the logs to move of their own accord to form the structure of the ship" (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, book II, chapter 8, lectio 14).

Three aspects of this quasi-definition deserve special attention: the rationality of nature, its connection to the divine plan, and the emphasis on self-organisation.

Firstly, the rationality of nature is underlined by identifying nature with the plan of an art (in the original Latin, "ratio cuiusdam artis"). In fact, scientific progress reveals, to previously unsuspected extremes, the efficiency and subtlety of nature. The success of science increasingly expands our knowledge of nature's rationality. Even if the products of technology surpass nature in some respects, they are always based on the materials and laws that nature makes available to us; and, of course, nature is always far ahead of us in many important respects.

Secondly, the connection of nature with the divine plan expresses the radical foundation of the rationality of nature: it is a manifestation of the divine plan, thus of a most wise plan. Moreover, divine action is not limited to directing natural activity from outside: the divine plan is inscribed in things (it is said in the original Latin: "ratio cuiusdam artis, scilicet divinae, indita rebus"). The natural has ways of being, with corresponding tendencies, which lead to optimal results. It is understood, therefore, that there is no civil service examination between natural action and the divine plan; on the contrary, the divine plan includes the tendential dynamism of the natural and is realised through its update.

Thirdly, self-organisation is alluded to as a basic characteristic of nature. The example is very graphic: as if pieces of wood could be given to move by themselves in order to build a ship. This idea corresponds, in a way that could not have been suspected when it was written more than seven centuries ago, to current knowledge about the self-organisation of nature, which also implies a high level of cooperativity between its components, its laws, and the different systems that are produced at successive levels of organisation. The directionality of nature is thus underlined, also in its synergetic aspect, and the emergence of new systems and properties is hinted at as result of synergetic or cooperative action.

On the other hand, the implications of the Thomistic characterisation of nature also deserve special attention. Indeed, the positive value of nature as result of the divine plan is highlighted. The articulation of necessity and contingency is also explained because, on the one hand, nature is contingent because it is the result of God's free action, and on the other hand, it possesses a strong consistency of agreement with the way of being that God has inscribed in the natural. Likewise, the articulation between unity and multiplicity is highlighted, because the perfection of the universe is achieved through the cooperation of its components and, ultimately, it is ordered towards human life, since nature constitutes the sphere that makes possible the existence of the human person and the development of his or her capacities. Finally, the articulation between being and becoming is understood, because God has placed in nature some virtualities that make its progressive evolution possible, and he counts on the cooperation of man, through his work, to lead nature towards an ever more perfect state. In final, this Thomistic definition expresses the core of the metaphysical and finalistic perspective on nature, and is of great importance in determining its value in the context of the current worldview.


  1. M. Artigas, The Mind of the Universe, Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia-London 2000; 
  2. J. Barrow, F. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1986; 
  3. M. Behe, Darwin's Black Box, Touchstone, New York 1998; 
  4. P. Janet, Les causes finales, Paris 1882; 
  5. S. Kauffman, At Home at the Universe. The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Viking, London 1995; 
  6. F. Selvaggi, La finalità nel mondo fisico, "Scienza e metodologia. Saggi di epistemologia", Università Gregoriana, Roma 1962, pp. 28-40;
  7. R. Spaemann, R. Low, Die Frage Wozu? Geschichte und Wiederentdeckung des teleologischen Denkens, Pieper, München 1981; 
  8. F. Van Steenberghen, La cinquième voie, 'ex gubernatione rerum', "Quinque sunt viae", a cura di L. Elders, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 1980, pp. 84-108.