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Teleology Without Goals and Ends

Martin LeFevre:  Science, which is rightly and necessarily based on materialism, has discounted and dismissed teleology. It has been simplistically viewed as a doctrine explaining phenomena in terms of goals or ends, but philosophically, it’s much more subtle.  

Though it is not in the purview of science, it’s philosophically valid to ask (irrespective of ends and goals): Does cosmic and terrestrial evolution have a direction and intrinsic intent? Most scientists would disregard such an inquiry, but scientists are not philosophers.

With regard to a more nuanced view of teleology, even Stephen Jay Gould, the influential popularizer of science, admitted that evolution tends to create beings of greater and greater complexity. That means there is directionality to evolution, and in that sense at least, evolution is teleological. The essential question is, is evolution heading somewhere, and if so, where?

One doesn’t have to revert to some form of supernaturalism to acknowledge that dogmatic materialism is a dead end philosophically and spiritually. It leads strictly materialistic philosophers to inane, circular conclusions like, “as purposeless as human evolution is, we generally benefit as a species from a belief in it.” That manages to sound rigid, elitist and egotistical at the same time.

It’s time to revisit teleology in a new way. As the writer of one of the vanished-without-a-trace series of philosophical essays in the New York Times called “The Stone,” said:

“You can entertain the possibility that evolution has a purpose, a kind of goal (a “telos,” as philosophers say), without departing from a strictly Darwinian view of evolution — without abandoning belief in natural selection as evolution’s only engine, and without surrendering your credentials as a modern, scientifically minded kind of person.”

I’ll cut to the chase and give my core premises. First, the human brain evolved over billions of years of random evolution on this planet. Second, though many people reject transcendent awareness, and others project full sentience into various animals, the human brain is the only brain on Earth with the neural capacity for conscious awareness of immanence.

Without reverting to organized religion and/or the supernatural, given these premises are true, why is it so difficult and rare for human beings to be silently aware of the numinous? A completely quiet mind is its own end, its own reward, and its own blessing.

Though this question would appear to have nothing to do with living in the world as it is, the complete negation of thought and stillness of mind during one’s meditations in nature is the only thing I’m entirely sure is true.

When thought is completely still, the brain becomes aware of wholeness and sacredness beyond any idea of a personal God. One cannot seek such a benediction; it comes if and when it comes. One can only end the observer, thought and time, and bring about a completely quiet mind/brain. Then the sacredness sometimes comes — unbidden, suddenly, and always surprisingly.

What is this otherness? If one could say, it would be a thing of thought, a plaything of the intellect. Even words like ‘numinous,’ ‘the sacred’ and ‘the otherness’ can be misleading. In these matters the “the word is not the thing” is never truer. Without actually experiencing the actuality, the words signify nothing.

Did the brain evolve to bring the benediction of the cosmic mind? Could the unimaginably slow and random evolution of neural capacity and complexity, from the simplest ganglia of the first multicellular organisms, through the ages of fishes, reptiles, dinosaurs and mammals, have an intrinsic drive an ultimate purpose?

To the inflexible materialist, the reflexive answer is no. For them, “meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, with our myths and stories.” Not only does that ignore and discount millennia of mystical experience across widely varying cultures, it idolizes the human intellect and enshrines self-centered activity.

Humans are not a special creation; we evolved along with all other life, according to the same chemical principles and patterns, and biological structure and scaffolding. Even so, without a design or Designer, the human brain is in fact “the pinnacle of creation” on this planet.

A brain like ours, with the capacities of both the scientific mind without scientism, and the religious mind without religion, need not have taken human form. On other planets where life has had the right conditions and enough time to evolve potentially intelligent life like humankind, the biological housing for the brain would no doubt look very different.

That’s not to say that man’s latest and most dangerous technology, AI, is the next stage in evolution. Artificial thought isn’t, and if we don’t attain sufficient insight into thought, AI may well spell the end of the human brain’s spiritual potential.

Believing that life, including intelligent life, only exists on this planet is too preposterous. I propose that cosmic evolution is imbued with the intrinsic intent to evolve, through random and non-linear means, brains with the neural capacity for awareness of the cosmic Mind. But if so, why is the human brain, which has this capacity, so corroded and congested with the useless, occluding accretions of content-consciousness?

As our planet burns and the oceans rise, as more and more animals with which we evolved are extinguished at human hands, man, and the vast majority of humans, are still going in the opposite direction of life and intelligence. 

Psychological thought is decimating the Earth and suffocating the human spirit. Is the evolution of ‘higher thought,’ wherever it occurs in the universe, both the final neural threshold and the greatest psycho-spiritual impediment to the realization of the universe’s intrinsic intent?

A solitary merganser makes its way upstream, diving frequently against a strong current for morsels of one kind or another. It stays underwater for 15-20 seconds at a time, resurfacing a surprising distance further upstream.   

The creek, while still flowing strongly, is down considerably, and for the first time this year, I’m able to take my meditation at streamside, and the senses grow attuned and acute to the sights, sounds and smells.

Watching the inner movement of memories and emotions in the same passive way one watches the stream flow by and the merganser dive, the movement of thought spontaneously ends in growing attentiveness. There is the ‘peace beyond all understanding’ and love beyond all personal particularities.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.