Friday, August 03, 2007

Sperm whales and science

Fans of Douglas Adams will be familiar with the scene in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the Infinite Improbability Drive turns two nuclear missiles into a bowl of petunias and a small sperm whale. The small sperm whale wonders why it is here and what is its purpose in life (technically speaking, its telos). This always made me laugh.

However, reading part of The God Delusion we find Richard Dawkins putting Douglas Adams up as a poster boy for atheism motivated by science. Adams has his epiphany after reading The Selfish Gene and embracing a new enthusiasm for atheism and absurdity. The whale (indeed the whole universe in his trilogy in four parts) is meaningless.

Does science deny teleology? More specifically, is modern science dysteleological? Is purpose only apparent (teleonomy)? I think there are 4 areas where the challenge lies.

1. Ontological dysteleology. There is something rather than nothing because there is something. The weak anthropic principle (we see things suited for life because we are alive) with some sort of multiverse idea means there is no need for a creator. Things exist because they do.

2. Anthropological or evolutionary dysteleology. Humans are not unique: there have been other hominids that could have become dominant (H. Neanderthalensis for one); intelligence is neither unique (cuttlefish, corvids like crows, cetaceans such as whales) nor special - it has arisen by chance as an adaptation; the unrepeatable nature of natural selection is such that humans need not have arisen, play the tape of life again (Gould) and we would not be here.

3. Theodicean dysteleology. Suffering is ubiquitous, horrendous and gratuitous. Evolution gives rise to it. Survival occurs via competition. Species develop and become extinct. People get cancer. Species parasitise other species. No good God created this as it is the result of blind chance.

4. Eschatological dysteleology. The destiny of the planet is to boil in an expanding solar envelope. The second law of thermodynamics ensures that the expanding universe (at an accelerating rate) ensures that complex life will one day disappear, that all information processing will come to an end in a void of simple particles as even protons eventually decay.

Pretty depressing huh? Is there a theological answer? Stay tuned.

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