Stealing from God: Intentions and the Laws of Nature

So far, we’ve covered causality, reason, and information in Turek’s C.R.I.M.E.S. acronym. But there is another “i” he mentions: intentionality (by which he simply means the characteristic of having intentions, rather than what that term means in the philosophy of mind). Acting intentionally is acting with purpose, or toward some goal. Most of this section of the book, however, is concerned with a more fundamental idea: That there are goals or purposes in all of nature. This is an idea that Turek learned from Edward Feser (a philosopher already familiar to many here at DC), who in turn got it from Aquinas. In fact, it’s the basis of Aquinas’s fifth way of proving the existence of God.

It’s easy to find purposes within living things. The organs of animals serve certain purposes for their owners. But what about in the nonliving world? What purposes or goals could possibly be found there? I was initially surprised by Turek’s basis for claiming that even inert matter is “directed toward an end.” The reason he offers is simply that nature behaves in a regular, law-like way:

“Electrons reliably orbit the nucleus of their atom; atoms consistently form certain molecules but not others; and planets follow a precise orbit — they don’t fly off into oblivion or start and stop randomly.”

But what could this possibly have to do with purposes or goals? Turek never says, but in The Last Superstition, Feser explains it this way:

“In each case, the causes don’t simply happen to result in certain effects, but are evidently and inherently directed toward certain specific effects as toward a ‘goal’.”

In other words, the fact that every time water reaches 100 degrees C at sea level pressure it begins to boil means that it “aims” at boiling under such conditions. Or so Feser and Aquinas claim. (Feser says that Aristotle also claims this, though I don’t think that’s the case. But I don’t want to get side-tracked here. I merely mention this because the entire argument is based on Aristotle’s concept of a “final cause,” by which Aristotle meant that for which something exists. Thus, the final cause of a hammer is to pound nails, the final cause of the heart is to pump blood, and so on. According to Aristotle, not everything has a final cause, however.)

The problem is that the above is at best a very misleading way of putting it. I don’t know why anyone would want to describe the fact that water always boils under conditions C as water having the “goal” of boiling under conditions C, or “aiming” to boil under such conditions. But if one does so, one can’t then use such a misleading description to conclude that therefore there must be some intention behind it — which is what Aquinas, Feser and Turek proceed to do. For, as Feser further explains:

“…it is impossible for anything to be directed toward an end unless that end exists in an intellect which directs the thing in question toward it. And it follows, therefore, that the system of ends or final causes that make up the physical universe can only exist at all because there is a Supreme Intelligence or intellect outside that universe which directs things toward their ends.”

Aquinas’s argument, then, is basically this: There are causal laws in the physical universe such that identical causes lead to identical effects. This means that someone intends those causes to produce those effects. Therefore, God exists.

And so the whole thing really turns out to involve intentions. But the problem, of course, is that the mere fact that there are causal laws doesn’t lead to this conclusion at all. There is nothing incoherent in the idea that the world just is law-like, so that whenever conditions C are present, effect E occurs. It doesn’t follow that the effects must in that case be “aimed at” by anything, or be the “purpose” of the cause in question. Hence, it doesn’t follow that someone must have aimed them.

And even in those cases where it makes sense to talk of actual purposes existing in the nonconscious realm — such as in the inner workings of organisms — there is no reason to talk of intentions. Nature is capable of producing such organization without anyone having planned it beforehand. Aquinas never heard of Darwin. Feser and Turek, however, have no excuse.

A former blog post related to the above: PRESUPPOSITIONALISM AND INDUCTION

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.