Natural purpose and the existence of God
Natural purpose and the existence of God
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: la red
date of on-line publication: 3 October 2005
Since ancient times, the order of nature has provided a way to recognise the power and wisdom of God, and in modern times, this way has been widened by the great progress of the sciences.
The Church teaches that we can discover God by contemplating created things. This is the teaching of the First Vatican Council, which takes up the teaching of St. Paul: "Holy Mother Church herself holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason, starting from created things; for that which is invisible of Him is seen, starting from the creation of the world, understood by means of what has been made (Rom. I, 20)" * (1).
Christian doctrine invites us to contemplate the greatness and goodness of God in his creatures. It does not lower the creatures in order to make room for God; on the contrary, it is the perfections that God manifests through creation that lead us to recognise him as their Author. It can be said that God has put his signature, in a thousand ways, into creation, and that nature is stamped with a divine seal. Much of the Christian life consists in encountering God through the traces that God has left in creation.
The divine seal
The affirmation of the created world as a revelation of God the Creator is found in the Sacred Scripture * (2), in the Holy Fathers and in the teachings of the Church.
This doctrine, which occupies an important place in Christianity, has been presented in a particularly vivid way through the message that Opus Dei spreads throughout the five continents, since it belongs to the core of what Saint Josemaría Escrivá taught throughout his life.
Indeed, this is how Don Alvaro del Portillo recalled it in Asia, when someone told him that he wanted to hear a description of Opus Dei from his lips: Opus Dei is nothing more than a way of seeking God in the normal circumstances of life, without the need to flee from the world, knowing that all created things bear a divine seal. I have been told that you, instead of signing, often use a seal. For God has his characteristic seal, which he has placed on all things. And this seal must be discovered by seeing God's imprint on other people and also, albeit in a different way, on trees and birds...... Every time we contemplate nature, we have to perceive this divine seal and praise God, who has created such great and good things...... This is what Opus Dei encourages: to be contemplatives in the midst of the world, that is, to be people who seek to find God in the ordinary circumstances of life* (3).
On another occasion, Don Alvaro was asked how to teach how to do God's will. In his reply, he advised learning to discover the divine meaning of all things, and referred to the Japanese custom of using one's own seal in place of the signature: God our Lord, as universal Creator, has left his seal on all things: on the Materials and on the spiritual. The divine seal is imprinted on everything. Our Father's teaching is that we have to look for that seal: in this way we come to God according to the spirit of the Work, being contemplatives in the middle of the street* (4).
The Christian spirit leads to seeing God's hand in everything, starting with nature. The Christian sees scientific and technical progress as something that financial aid leads us to know and love God more, discovering Him through the mark that He Himself has left on nature.
The end of creation
The Church teaches that the world was created for the glory of God. "It is a fundamental truth which Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and to celebrate: "The world was created for the glory of God" (Vatican Council I: DS 3025).... God created all things, explains St Bonaventure, "not to increase his glory, but to manifest and communicate it" (Sentences 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1). For God has no other reason for creating than his love and his goodness: "When his hand was opened with the key of love, creatures came into being" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Sent. 2, prol). And the First Vatican Council explains: "In his goodness and by his almighty power, not to increase his blessedness, nor to acquire his perfection, but to manifest it by the good things he bestows on his creatures, the one true God, in his free design, in the beginning of time, created from nothing at the same time one creature and another, the spiritual and the corporeal" (DS 3002)" * (5).
The glory of God and the perfection of creatures are closely related. God creates in order to manifest his perfection and his goodness; therefore, he wants the perfection and goodness of creatures: "The ultimate end of creation is that God, "Creator of all beings, makes himself 'all things in all things' (I Cor., XV, 28), procuring both his glory and our happiness" (Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad Gentes, 2)" * (6).
God creates freely out of wisdom and love. He had no need of creation, and has created in order to share his perfection with creatures, especially the intelligent and free creature, who is capable of happiness. "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom (cf. Sap. IX, 9). It is not the product of some random necessity, blind fate or chance. We believe that it is the result of the free will of God who willed to make creatures share in his being, his wisdom and his goodness.... "How manifold are your works, O Lord! You have done them all in wisdom" (Ps. CIV, 24)" * (7).
The perfection of the created world
The world reflects the perfection of its Creator. "Every creature possesses its own goodness and perfection. For each of the works of the "six days" it is said: "And God saw that it was good". "By the very nature of creation, all things are endowed with their own firmness, truth, goodness and order" (Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 36, 2). The various creatures, willed in their own being, reflect, each in its own way, a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness" * (8).
God has created an ordered and good world. "Because God creates in wisdom, creation is ordered: "You have set everything in order with measure, number and weight" (Sap. XI, 20). Created in and by the eternal Word... creation is destined, directed to man, the image of God (cf. Gen. I, 26), called to a personal relationship with God. Our intelligence, sharing in the light of the divine Understanding, can understand what God says to us through his creation (cf. Ps. XIX, 2-5), certainly not without great effort and in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work (cf. Jb, XLII, 3). Out of the divine goodness, creation participates in that goodness ("And God saw that it was good...very good": Gen., I, 22.214.171.124.21.31). For creation is willed by God as a gift addressed to man, as an inheritance destined and entrusted to him. The Church has repeatedly had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the material world (cf. DS 286; 455-463; 800; 1333; 3002)" * (9).
The world is made up of beings with very different ways of being. There are different types of cooperation between creatures in the world, because some need others: the interdependence of creatures is willed by God * (10). And one can speak of a hierarchy of creatures* (11): "Man is the summit of the work of creation. The inspired account expresses this by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of other creatures (cf. Gen 1:26)" * (12).
The universe possesses a beauty that consists of order and harmony: "The beauty of the universe, the order and harmony of the created world derive from the diversity of beings and the relationships that exist between them. Man discovers them progressively as laws of nature which cause the admiration of the wise. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the creator" * (13).
The divine government of the world
The Church teaches that God governs the world by his providence* (14). On the one hand, because creatures are always in need of God: "Once creation is accomplished, God does not abandon his creature to itself. Not only does he give it being and existence, but he keeps it in being at every moment, gives it action and brings it to completion" * (15). Moreover, God wants creation to pass through various stages, so that the creatures cooperate to arrive at a final state of perfection: "Creation has its own goodness and perfection, but it did not emerge fully finished from the hands of the Creator. It was created "on the way" (in statu viae) towards an ultimate perfection still to be attained" * (16).
God has no need of creatures; He can produce any effect without their natural causes. But ordinarily He has these causes, and He uses them for the accomplishment of His designs. "God is the sovereign Lord of His plan. But for its realisation He also makes use of the help of creatures. This is not a sign of weakness" * (17): on the contrary, sample the goodness of a God who gives his creatures the capacity to collaborate in his plans and to perfect themselves through this collaboration.
It is important to underline that "divine providence does not exclude other causes, but rather orders them to bring about the established order: and so second causes are not opposed to providence, since they bring about the effect of providence" * (18).
The teleological argument
The order of the world, which is manifested in the laws, rhythms and cycles of nature, in the interconnectedness of all creation, and in the hierarchy of creatures culminating in man, sample that nature responds to a plan and refers to divine government. There is finality in nature, because there is perfection, rationality, means tending towards ends; and finality presupposes an intelligence responsible for the rational plan. Since it is a question of an order that extends to the whole of nature and affects the way of being of creatures, this intelligence must belong to the Author of nature, that is, to God.
This test of God's existence is called the teleological argument (from the Greek: télos, end). It has been formulated by many authors since antiquity, and is the most popular argument for rationally arriving at God. In the Sacred Scripture and in Tradition there are many allusions to the order of nature that refers back to its Creator.
St. Thomas Aquinas expounded this argument in different passages of his works, being especially important, for its precision and elegance, the formulation known as the fifth way to prove the existence of God: "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; from which it is evident that they reach their 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" * (19).
Like the other arguments for proving the existence of God, it is not a demonstration, so to speak, automatic or impersonal, which must necessarily convince anyone. It is a rational and valid argument, which indeed financial aid many people admit to the existence of a personal creator God, but in this area, which has so many important and life-compromising consequences, the moral rectitude of the subject plays an important role.
The teleological argument leads to God as an intelligent and therefore personal being; indeed, it stresses the existence of a plan (providence), which is characteristic of intelligent beings: sample precisely that the behaviour of beings lacking intelligence requires an intelligent plan. And it leads to God the creator, because it leads to God as the author of nature and of the tendencies of natural beings. The argument therefore also underlines the divine transcendence: God is distinct from the world, but at the same time acts within all creatures.
This argument stresses the existence of ends that are goods: it claims that natural bodies act in such a way as to achieve the optimum, the best. Therefore, the argument only makes sense if we have an idea of what is good in nature, and this is not always easy. However, the difficulties disappear when one recognises that man is at the centre of nature: then one realises that human life makes sense in itself and everything else makes sense in terms of human existence. This does not mean that every event in nature must be beneficial for human beings, but that the other areas of nature find their meaning as conditions of possibility for human life, even if many of their manifestations have no direct relation to us.
The problem of evil
Any test of the existence of God must confront the problem of evil, but this is especially true of the teleological argument, based on the order and perfection of the universe: how can the perfection of an all-powerful God be reconciled with the existence of evil?
The problem is real. Moreover, it is one of the most profound problems we face, and it affects everyone's life, sometimes dramatically. The first step in confronting it seriously is to recognise its seriousness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "To this question, as pressing as it is inevitable, as painful as it is mysterious, no simple answer can be given. The whole of the Christian faith constitutes the answer to this question (...) There is not a feature of the Christian message which is not in part a response to the question of evil" * (20).
Ultimately, the only evil properly speaking is moral evil, that is, sin; and sin is the fruit of the misuse of freedom, which God has given us so that we can collaborate in the realisation of our end* (21). Physical evil is only a relative evil, because it can be converted into spiritual good. On the other hand, Christian doctrine teaches us that God placed man in a privileged state in which these evils did not exist, and that man lost this state through his own fault. To all this we can add that God permits evil for the sake of greater good, that is, to safeguard greater good, or even because he can draw good from evil: Everything cooperates for the good of those who love God* (22).
The existence of physical evil is understandable, because "in His infinite wisdom and goodness, God freely willed to create a world "on the way" to its ultimate perfection. This becoming brings with it, in God's design, along with the appearance of certain beings, the disappearance of others; along with the more perfect the less perfect; along with the constructions of nature also the destructions. Therefore, with physical good there is also physical evil, as long as creation has not reached its perfection (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, III,71)" * (23).
We cannot claim a perfect knowledge of God's plans: "We firmly believe that God is the Lord of the world and of history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge comes to an end, when we see God 'face to face' (I Cor. XIII, 12), will we fully know the ways by which, even through the dramas of evil and sin, God will have brought his creation to the rest of that final Sabbath (cf. Gen II, 2), in view of which he created heaven and earth" * (24). However, we can understand that the existence of evil is not opposed to divine providence, but plays an important role in it.
Science and purpose
It is sometimes claimed that the natural sciences do not use the concept of finality, and that scientific explanations would make it unnecessary to resort to God to explain the order of nature.
It can be said, however, that scientific progress broadens the basis of the teleological argument, because it reveals many aspects of the natural order that were previously unknown and sample the highly sophisticated character of nature. For example, if we could contemplate the processes that are continuously taking place in living things at the molecular level, we would be astonished at their complexity, cooperativity and organisation. Genetic information, found in the nuclei of all cells, contains instructions that guide the development and functioning of any organism: it is a plan that encompasses a complex coordination of ends and means, and that plan is embodied in physical Structures .
One of the main objections to the teleological argument on behalf of science comes from evolution. It is said that the order of nature has appeared as result of a long process of evolution, in which many results have been produced accidentally and only the best adapted have survived: this would explain why nature seems to function as if there were a purpose, although in reality there would be no purpose at all and everything would have been produced by blind forces. result It is added that, in fact, most living things have disappeared, and those that exist today are not the result of a plan but of opportunistic adaptations. And, furthermore, it is stressed that the origin of evolutionary changes is to be found in variations that occur at random and are unpredictable: therefore, it is concluded, evolution has no definite direction and does not respond to a plan.
However, even if one admits the existence of evolution and the mechanisms mentioned (random variations and natural selection), these processes would only be incompatible with the existence of a divine plan if one thinks that this plan should lead to perfect results, always progressive, leaving no room for chance or imperfection. But there is no reason to think that the divine plan proceeds in this way; on the contrary, it is reasonable to think that, if God wants creatures to collaborate in the realisation of his designs, there will be imperfections, opportunisms and extinctions.
On the other hand, there is no such thing as chance for God, because everything is subject to his power and he is perfectly aware of all processes and their effects. But this does not mean that the divine plan imposes the same subject of necessity on everything created. The world is contingent, because God could not have created it or could have created a different world, and also because many processes do not respond to a necessary law: they may or may not occur according to changing circumstances.
Even if it is admitted that evolution does not have a necessary direction, this does not place limits on God's power or on the realisation of his plans, nor does it mean that the teleological argument is invalid. Indeed, evolution implies, in any case, the actualisation of potentialities that were present from the beginning, and in such a way that, at each stage of evolution, new potentialities are produced, new channels are opened that allow the emergence of beings possessing an ever more complex organisation. The process of evolution as a whole appears as the contingent unfolding of very sophisticated information that is integrated in successive steps of organisation until it reaches the human organism. At final, whoever admits evolution must also admit the conditions that make it possible, and these conditions are fully consistent with the teleological argument, because they involve unconscious activity leading to enormously sophisticated results. Creaturely activity does not replace divine action; on the contrary, it refers back to it as its necessary foundation and radical explanation.
When modern experimental science was systematically born in the 17th century, natural finality was criticised as a useless concept for physical science; this criticism was partly right, because the new mathematical physics did not use finality, at least not explicitly. In the 19th century, the criticism seemed to extend to the realm of the living, because evolution seemed to explain their origin by means of natural processes.
In the 20th century a new situation has arisen. The great progress of science has led to a new worldview. For the first time in history we have a scientific worldview that is unitary, complete and rigorous: it extends to all areas of nature and relates them to each other, even if, without doubt, our knowledge is still very partial and continually stumbles over enigmas.
Central to the new worldview are concepts closely related to order and purpose, such as the concepts of guideline, system, directionality, cooperativity, organisation and information. The capacity for self-organisation is emphasised, which can lead to the emergence, at different levels, of genuine novelties. Self-organisation implies co-operativity, and allows nature to be seen as the unfolding of virtualities at levels of progressive complexity, at each of which new virtualities open up. It is understandable that the order of nature is contingent and that, at the same time, it shows the existence of an even more subtle rationality than what appears to ordinary experience.
In this perspective, one can even understand that, if God wanted the human organism to appear through natural causes, it is possible that there must have been a cosmic evolution of billions of years, in the course of which an enormous number of stars were produced and, finally, our Solar System with the very special characteristics of the Earth, which make human life possible.
On the other hand, there seems to be no principled reason to deny the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.
In nature there is finality, and even those who deny it end up introducing other equivalent terms and speak, for example, of teleonomy. Our existence presupposes the existence of many stable situations that imply channels, privileged directions and, therefore, directionality and finality.
Nature is full of tendencies towards specific goals, and of virtualities that can lead to new outcomes. However, the basic types of possible outcomes are not many. It is as if there exists in nature a language that allows the construction of an enormous number of words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.: there is a wide margin of creativity, but always within the possibilities of the alphabet and the rules of language; and the existence of such a language subject refers to an intelligent plan.
The search for meaning
The teleological perspective is a bridge between the scientific knowledge , on the one hand, and the search for meaning, on the other. Indeed, it builds on the findings of the sciences, and integrates them into the broader perspectives of philosophy and theology.
The teleological perspective is sometimes criticised as illegitimate; it is said that natural beings are not intelligent and therefore cannot act with a finality: attributing finality to nature would be anthropomorphism. However, this way of arguing does not respect the facts: if there is finality in nature, as indeed there is, the explanation of that finality must be sought in an intelligence that governs nature.
At other times it is said that natural finality is an impossibility, because it would mean that a future that does not yet exist influences present actions. But new scientific knowledge makes it possible to understand how a foresight of the future can exist in nature: by means of information stored on Structures Materials . The genetic information possessed by living organisms is a clear case in point.
The existence of a divine plan is compatible with the creativity of nature and the emergence of genuine novelties. The divine plan does not mean rigid determinism. As the First Cause of all that exists and of its laws, God can govern the world by reckoning with contingency and chance.
Of course, the teleological argument does not allow us to know the divine plan in all its detail: it only concludes that the plan exists. Many aspects of the divine plan are unknowable, even in the light of faith. The force of the teleological argument would be misrepresented if it were thought that affirming the existence of divine government is tantamount to knowing what God's plan is in each particular case.
Teleology plays an important role in achieving a perspective that harmonises the sciences and Humanities, the analytical method that seeks the knowledge of details and the synthetic method that seeks the overall view. This is one of the major problems of our time, which is strongly marked by the sciences.
Scientific progress makes it possible to see ever better the harmony and order of nature, and therefore its rationality. Nature appears as the unfolding of a kind of unconscious intelligence that refers to the plan of a conscious and personal intelligence: to divine government. Other metaphors illustrate different aspects of the same situation. One can speak, for example, of the book of nature, which admits several readings that are different but complementary, depending on the perspective adopted. And nature also appears as an unfinished symphony which, although it possesses a B Degree of perfection, has been entrusted by God to man so that, with his work and solicitude, he may collaborate in a task of successive perfection which will end, in a somewhat mysterious but real way, in the destiny that awaits nature in the future life.
- Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, ch. 2: DS 3004. Dei Filius, ch. 2: DS 3004.
- The account of creation tells us that God saw that everything he had created was good (cf. Gen. I, 126.96.36.199.21.31). The book of Wisdom reproaches those who have known the perfections of creatures and have not recognised the greatness of their creator (cfr. Sap. XIII, 1-9; v. 5 says: "for from the greatness and beauty of creatures, by reasoning, one comes to know their Maker"). St. Paul writes something similar to the Romans (cf. Rom. I, 19-20).
- Get-together in Taipeh (Taiwan), 7.
- Get-together in Ashiya (Japan), 18.II.1987.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 293.
- Ibid., n. 294.
- Ibid., n. 295.
- Ibid., n. 339.
- Ibid., n. 299.
- Cf. ibid., n. 340, where it is stressed that "no creature is sufficient unto itself" and that creatures "exist only in dependence on one another, to complement and serve one another". Also n. 344: "There is a solidarity among all creatures by the fact that they all have the same Creator and that they are all ordered to his glory".
- Ibid., n. 342: "The hierarchy of creatures is expressed by the order of the "six days"".
- Ibid., n. 343.
- Ibid., n. 341.
- Cf. Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, ch. 1: DS 3003. Dei Filius, ch. 1: DS 3003.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 301.
- Ibid., n. 302.
- Ibid., n. 306.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, III, 96.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 2, 3 c.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 309.
- Cf. ibid., n. 311.
- Rom. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 312: "Thus, in time, it can be discovered that God, in his almighty providence, can bring good out of the consequences of evil, even moral evil, caused by his creatures".
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 310.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 314.