The Teleological Argument and Herman Bavinck

Objections to the teleological argument

Bavinck saw that there were scholars who denied the teleological grounds and purpose of creation:

“First of all, materialism asserts that there is no purpose in things, and the teleological interpretation of nature must give way to the mechanical one. Pantheism, moreover, affirms that the presence of order and purpose in the universe gives us absolutely no warrant to posit the existence of a conscious, intelligent cause since, both in the case of the individual human and that of the world as a whole, the unconscious functions with more wisdom and certainty than conscious reflection and deliberate calculation. Finally, Kant raised the objection that this argument at most leads to a world-shaper not to a World creator” (pages 82 to 83)

Bavinck Replies to these objections

In this section Bavinck answers the objectors firstly through Jewish Christian writings.  After this he will show that the Ancient Greek Philosophers held to idea that nature has purpose.

The Jewish Christian World view as found in Scripture

Bavinck the Master Theologian begins by turning to Scripture and here we see that there is purpose in Creation:

Genesis 1 shows us that God gave creation a purpose and ‘it was good’:

The Creation

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

6 Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 God made the expanse and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. 8 God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

9 Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. 10 God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. 13 There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. 16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. 17 God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

20 Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” 21 God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

24 Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. 25 God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; 30 and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” Genesis 1

We then have Wisdom calling out to us!

“Does not wisdom call,

And understanding lift up her voice? “Proverbs 8:1

All things belong to Christ:

“So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” 1 Corinthians 3:21-23

As believers in Christ God’s purposes are working themselves out in His love every day:

“28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

The ancient Greek philosophers

Here are some Greek philosophers that Bavinck points to who actually used the teleological arguments.

  • Anaxagoras
  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Aristotle

At this point he just gave these names as a matter of fact.  If you want to follow this through you can read the notes below taken from Wikipedia.  I included the notes here though for those who wanted to know what the Greek philosophers were thinking.  

In his argument Bavinck reminds us that purpose can be seen in such things as:

  • The seasons
  • Water temperature
  • Fertilization of Plants
  • Blood circulation
  • Organisms such as the hand or the eye

We could go on with his examples, but he says that Homers Iliad could not have come into being by chance.  This means other things too.

Before continuing into Bavinck and his view on Darwin’s natural selection arguments.  We need a basic idea of what it is.   In a nutshell:

“Darwin proposed a theory of the survival of the fittest by natural selection. The fittest, healthiest members of a species survive, and their characteristics become a part of the character of the species.” (From scandalon.co.uk/philosophy/teleological_mill_darwin.htm)

This theory of evolution has been a bomb shell as it gives a reason not to believe in a deity.  Having said that I don’t think even Darwin envisaged this and how this idea of the ‘fittest surviving’ could lead to the atrocities committed by Germany in WW2. 

The Nazis milked Nietzsche’s idea of the “Superman” for themselves:

“The Italian and German fascist regimes were eager to lay claim to Nietzsche’s ideas, and to position themselves as inspired by them. In 1932, Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, received a bouquet of roses from Adolf Hitler during a German premiere of Benito Mussolini’s 100 Days, and in 1934 Hitler personally presented her with a wreath for Nietzsche’s grave carrying the words “To A Great Fighter”. Also in 1934, Elisabeth gave to Hitler Nietzsche’s favourite walking stick, and Hitler was photographed gazing into the eyes of a white marble bust of Nietzsche.[23] Heinrich Hoffmann’s popular biography Hitler as Nobody Knows Him (which sold nearly a half-million copies by 1938) featured this photo with the caption reading: “The Führer before the bust of the German philosopher whose ideas have fertilized two great popular movements: the national socialist of Germany and the fascist of Italy.”” 

From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influence_and_reception_of_Friedrich_Nietzsche

Following this recipe of the Superman deifies Man as ‘divine’ and gives him control over the elements.  Whenever man is made divine the world runs into serious problems. 

However, we also need to remember that natural selection was never a new idea.  The Greek philosophers of Ancient Greece looked at its philosophical implications and was rejected by Aristotle, one of the greatest minds of the ancient world. Aristotle fell on the teleological side of natural selection:

“   So what hinders the different parts [of the body] from having this merely accidental relation in nature? as the teeth, for example, grow by necessity, the front ones sharp, adapted for dividing, and the grinders flat, and serviceable for masticating the food; since they were not made for the sake of this, but it was the result of accident. And in like manner as to the other parts in which there appears to exist an adaptation to an end. Wheresoever, therefore, all things together (that is all the parts of one whole) happened like as if they were made for the sake of something, these were preserved, having been appropriately constituted by an internal spontaneity, and whatsoever things were not thus constituted, perished, and still perish.

    — Aristotle, Physics, Book II, Chapter 8[7]

But Aristotle rejected this possibility in the next paragraph, making clear that he is talking about the development of animals as embryos with the phrase “either invariably or normally come about”, not the origin of species:

    … Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. We do not ascribe to chance or mere coincidence the frequency of rain in winter, but frequent rain in summer we do; nor heat in the dog-days, but only if we have it in winter. If then, it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree. Therefore, action for an end is present in things which come to be and are by nature.

    — Aristotle, Physics, Book II, Chapter ” From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_selection

Darwin Summarized his ideas on Natural Selection:

   “ If during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organisation, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometrical powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterised will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance, they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterised. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

    — Darwin summarising natural selection in the fourth chapter of On the Origin of Species”

From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_selection

Natural selection is not the problem.  It becomes a problem when the theory is used to deny the existence of God.   We are now ready to turn to Herman Bavinck and think about what he has to say.

Bavinck says that the initial characterization of Darwinism was one of substitution.  Substituting purpose for cause.  This brought to the fore how important teleological views are. As Bavinck continues one of natural selections goals was to explain how things worked (‘functionality of things’). ‘Matter, force and motion’ fails to explain everything rather direction is needed too.  As Bavinck says, ‘direction is inconceivable without purpose.’ The latest research around the turn of the century ‘Teleology and causality certainly do not exclude each other’.

Bavinck goes on to say that there is also room for the teleological world view for ‘mechanical causality’.  However, Bavinck warns that trying to explain ‘all phenomena’ found in our world would be a serious mistake.  There are limits then even for teleology. Teleology can be used for:

  • Matter
  • Metabolism
  • Conscious
  • Mental

However, Bavinck explains to us that not all intelligentsia agree with teleological arguments but rather there are those who try to disprove teleology.  

Bavinck points to a scholar from 1900 Von Hartmann who took the opposite view to teleology. ‘Instinct’ as ‘an unconscious lack of cogency’ is argued by Hartmann.  However even in the product of instinct it still points to a preconceived purpose.

Bavinck makes the point that even if teleology points to a World-shaper this is going in the right direction.  {With the context I think Bavinck may mean World shaper = One who forms creation from something already there instead of ex nihilo (the Christian view of God the Creator.  I’m not 100% sure at the moment)} There are other objections but on a practical level:

“Everything here depends on the presence of purpose in the world.  Once this is established the existence of consciousness of a Supreme Being are implied.”

Reformed Dogmatics; Herman Bavinck; Volume 2; page 83

Reflection

Darwin could not see the big picture on how the world works and how his natural selection fits in.  Sad to say, the idea of ‘natural selection’ when divorced from the existence of a Creator put Man in the driver’s seat. This ideology led to the Holocaust tempered with anti-Semitism. 20 million Russians also died because of Stalin.

When the Creator is denied something else has to fill the vacuum and we know from human history that death and destruction follows. 

With teleology a relational harmony takes place between God and nature; between the Creator and creature.

With God as Creator, ethics is tempered by God’s revelation from Scripture and nature that the world has purpose and reason to exist.

Bavinck reminds us that by God’s grace the world runs.  The world is not an accident and as custodians of nature here on earth we have a responsibility to put God in his rightful place by better taking care of the natural world.

Notes on the Greek Philosophers and the Teleological argument

Anaxagoras

(Taken from ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaxagoras)

“Anaxagoras brought philosophy and the spirit of scientific inquiry from Ionia to Athens. According to Anaxagoras all things have existed in some way from the beginning, but originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined throughout the universe. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. There was an infinite number of homogeneous parts (ὁμοιομερῆ) as well as heterogeneous ones.

The work of arrangement, the segregation of like from unlike and the summation of the whole into totals of the same name, was the work of Mind or Reason (νοῦς). Mind is no less unlimited than the chaotic mass, but it stood pure and independent, a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. This subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, is especially seen ruling in all the forms of life.[d] Its first appearance, and the only manifestation of it which Anaxagoras describes, is Motion. It gave distinctness and reality to the aggregates of like parts.”

Socrates and the pre-Socratics

(From ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument#Socrates_and_the_pre-Socratics)

“The argument from intelligent design appears to have begun with Socrates, although the concept of a cosmic intelligence is older and David Sedley has argued that Socrates was developing an older idea, citing Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 BC, as a possible earlier proponent.[13][14][15] The proposal that the order of nature showed evidence of having its own human-like “intelligence” goes back to the origins of Greek natural philosophy and science, and its attention to the orderliness of nature, often with special reference to the revolving of the heavens. Anaxagoras is the first person who is definitely known to have explained such a concept using the word “nous” (which is the original Greek term that leads to modern English “intelligence” via its Latin and French translations). Aristotle reports an earlier philosopher from Clazomenae named Hermotimus who had taken a similar position.[16] Amongst Pre-Socratic philosophers before Anaxagoras, other philosophers had proposed a similar intelligent ordering principle causing life and the rotation of the heavens. For example Empedocles, like Hesiod much earlier, described cosmic order and living things as caused by a cosmic version of love,[17] and Pythagoras and Heraclitus attributed the cosmos with “reason” (logos).[18] In his Philebus 28c Plato has Socrates speak of this as a tradition, saying that “all philosophers agree—whereby they really exalt themselves—that mind (nous) is king of heaven and earth. Perhaps they are right.” and later states that the ensuing discussion “confirms the utterances of those who declared of old that mind (nous) always rules the universe”.”

Plato and Aristotle

(Taken from ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument#Plato_and_Aristotle)

Plato’s Timaeus is presented as a description of someone who is explaining a “likely story” in the form of a myth, and so throughout history commentators have disagreed about which elements of the myth can be seen as the position of Plato.[15]: 132  Sedley (2007) nevertheless calls it “the creationist manifesto” and points out that although some of Plato’s followers denied that he intended it, in classical times writers such as Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, and Galen all understood Plato as proposing the world originated in an “intelligent creative act”.[15]: 133  Plato has a character explain the concept of a “demiurge” with supreme wisdom and intelligence as the creator of the cosmos in his work.

Plato’s teleological perspective is also built upon the analysis of a priori order and structure in the world that he had already presented in The Republic. The story does not propose creation ex nihilo; rather, the demiurge made order from the chaos of the cosmos, imitating the eternal Forms.[22]

    Plato’s world of eternal and unchanging Forms, imperfectly represented in matter by a divine Artisan, contrasts sharply with the various mechanistic Weltanschauungen, of which atomism was, by the 4th century at least, the most prominent… This debate was to persist throughout the ancient world. Atomistic mechanism got a shot in the arm from Epicurus… while the Stoics adopted a divine teleology… The choice seems simple: either show how a structured, regular world could arise out of undirected processes, or inject intelligence into the system.[23]

    — R. J. Hankinson, Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought

Plato’s student and friend Aristotle (c. 384 – 322 BC), continued the Socratic tradition of criticising natural scientists such as Democritus who sought (as in modern science) to explain everything in terms of matter and chance motion. He was very influential in the future development of classical creationism, but was not a straightforward “creationist” because he required no creation interventions in nature, meaning he “insulated god from any requirement to intervene in nature, either as creator or as administrator”.[15]: 204  Instead of direct intervention by a creator it is “scarcely an exaggeration to say that for Aristotle the entire functioning of the natural world, as also the heavens, is ultimately to be understood as a shared striving towards godlike actuality”.[15]: 171  And whereas the myth in the Timaeus suggests that all living things are based on one single paradigm, not one for each species, and even tells a story of “devolution” whereby other living things devolved from humans, it was Aristotle who presented the influential idea that each type of normal living thing must be based on a fixed paradigm or form for that species.[15]

Aristotle felt that biology was a particularly important example of a field where materialist natural science ignored information which was needed in order to understand living things well. For example birds use wings for the purpose of flight.[24] Therefore the most complete explanation in regard to the natural, as well as the artificial, is for the most part teleological.[25] In fact, proposals that species had changed by chance survival of the fittest, similar to what is now called “natural selection”, were already known to Aristotle, and he rejected these with the same logic.[25][26][27][28][29] He conceded that monstrosities (new forms of life) could come about by chance,[30][31] but he disagreed with those who ascribed all nature purely to chance[32] because he believed science can only provide a general account of that which is normal, “always, or for the most part”.[33] The distinction between what is normal, or by nature, and what is “accidental”, or not by nature, is important in Aristotle’s understanding of nature. As pointed out by Sedley, “Aristotle is happy to say (Physics II 8, 199a33-b4) without the slightest fear of blasphemy, crafts make occasional mistakes; therefore, by analogy, so can nature.”[15]: 186  According to Aristotle the changes which happen by nature are caused by their “formal causes”, and for example in the case of a bird’s wings there is also a final cause which is the purpose of flying. He explicitly compared this to human technology:

    If then what comes from art is for the sake of something, it is clear that what come from nature is too […] This is clear most of all in the other animals, which do nothing by art, inquiry, or deliberation; for which reason some people are completely at a loss whether it is by intelligence or in some other way that spiders, ants, and such things work. […] It is absurd to think that a thing does not happen for the sake of something if we do not see what sets it in motion deliberating. […] This is most clear when someone practices medicine himself on himself; for nature is like that.

    — Aristotle, Physics, II 8.[34]

The question of how to understand Aristotle’s conception of nature having a purpose and direction something like human activity is controversial in the details. Martha Nussbaum for example has argued that in his biology this approach was practical and meant to show nature only being analogous to human art, explanations of an organ being greatly informed by knowledge of its essential function.[25] Nevertheless, Nussbaum’s position is not universally accepted. In any case, Aristotle was not understood this way by his followers in the Middle Ages, who saw him as consistent with monotheistic religion and a teleological understanding of all nature. Consistent with the medieval interpretation, in his Metaphysics and other works Aristotle clearly argued a case for there being one highest god or “prime mover” which was the ultimate cause, though specifically not the material cause, of the eternal forms or natures which cause the natural order, including all living things.[citation needed] He clearly refers to this entity having an intellect that humans somehow share in, which helps humans see the true natures or forms of things without relying purely on sense perception of physical things, including living species. This understanding of nature, and Aristotle’s arguments against materialist understandings of nature, were very influential in the Middle Ages in Europe. The idea of fixed species remained dominant in biology until Darwin, and a focus upon biology is still common today in teleological criticisms of modern science.

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