A Future-Oriented Teleology: Evolutionary Biology, Jamesian Philosophical Psychology, and Sufficient Design
The contemporary debate over the scientific worth and educational merits of intelligent design has carried the assumption that this recent challenge to the scientific mainstream is in stark contrast with evolutionary biology. Assumptions are, of course, powerful agents of thought, often even more forceful than articulated ideas. And there is much truth in this particular assumption of polarization in the science-and-religion debate: the propositions of intelligent design generally do not stand up to the standards of scientific research programs and theory falsification; and numerous scientific, philosophical, and legal constituencies have concluded that intelligent design is more of a religious belief than a scientific theory. But what has often been overlooked in this polarized contrast between intelligent design and evolutionary biology are the ways in which evolutionary thinking, starting with the work of Charles Darwin himself, actually contains some elements of teleology. Darwinism recognizes a role for purpose, but as with natural selection itself, purpose adapted to the natural facts of creatures struggling in their environments. These ideas, especially as elaborated by the philosopher and psychologist William James, provide alternative and potentially healing ways of addressing the polarized conflict. The tradition that includes Darwin and James suggests that living nature has purpose, but its designs are not grand, ancient, or ideal; instead they are sufficient to each individual and each generation, and they have resulted in very gradual evolutionary development. Recognition of the role of such design operating in nature may also be sufficient to address some religious and idealistic—and broadly human—concerns for a world of purpose.
Layers of Teleology
Most simply, teleology involves direction to a goal. The most basic aspect of teleology is functional, and this points to the action or behavior that achieves the goal. Functional teleology involves achievement of a goal without effort or intention, as a natural outgrowth of the thing’s nature or of the arrangements of its parts; for example, a river flowing to the sea, or a leaf’s turn toward sunshine. However, teleology is more often associated with functions performed and goals achieved in more purposeful ways. Purposeful agents are more active than are functional agents, and purposeful teleology involves achievement of a goal with persistence and sensitivity to surrounding conditions. This form of teleology implies consciousness with its power to anticipate, motivate, and select. Teleology is still more usually associated not only with conscious purpose, but also with ideals of ultimate purpose. Ironically, these features of teleology return to the same grounds of the prior distinction between functional and purposeful. For those who perceive a vitality inherent in nature, the functional action of things is itself their ultimate purpose, with each part related to and building upon the adjacent ones for the achievement of collective ultimate purpose. However, the teleology of ultimate purpose has, in the West, been still more often associated with the purposes of a creating and directing supernatural power, which manifests in nature through the teleology of its creation. This teleology indicates something more than function or vitality, something that connects this world to the sacred. This feature of teleology has been particularly important for religious developments since the rise of modern science especially with the theological turn away from direct miraculous divine action in the world; with science identifying natural laws to explain natural actions, teleology became especially important for religious believers respectful of scientific advance: the divine still operated in the world not through direct miraculous action, but rather with indirect achievement of purpose divinely embedded in created nature.
This emphasis on divine manifestations in the natural world, or natural theology, has an even earlier history than its role during the rise of modern science. It took its place alongside God’s disclosure in Hebrew history, the Christian intersession of Jesus, and perennial mystical direct experience as one of the ways for finite and fallen human beings to relate to or even know the transcendent divine. Natural theology was the most empirical bridge between humanity and divinity, and for it, teleology was central. The design of the world, with all its functional order and perceived operation for integrated purpose, suggested the central role for its designer, God, as the creator of the world. It was the empirical features of natural theology that could strengthen believers’ confidence through the knowledge of facts. And the order and beauty of nature pointed to divine benevolence to supplement appreciation of divine power. The empirical features of natural theology became particularly important with the rise of modern philosophy and science. As empirical facts became the most authoritative standards for knowledge and belief, natural theology took an increasingly privileged place in religion and became important in religious dialogue with science.
While thoughts of natural purpose and design brought religion closer to science, science was moving away from theories of ultimate purpose and grand design promoted by natural theology. During the nineteenth century, scientific investigation increasingly emphasized the operation of chance in nature and employed hypothetical reasoning in the assertion of theories to explain the manifest complexity of the world. These ways of thinking undercut the plausibility of claims to purpose and design in nature. The most significant development was the advent of Darwinism. Charles Darwin began his career with a belief in natural theology. He admired the work of Archbishop William Paley whose design argument not only justified the existence of God, but also encouraged the study of natural history, including Darwin’s own first steps. Even as Darwin delved deeper, Paley’s thinking was important to him in that he searched for functional and purposeful patterns to explain species formations. The archbishop’s approaches directed his attention to the design-like features in nature, even as the scientist sought out a scientific explanation of those patterns. Entering his studies within a natural theology framework, his investigations and theorizing could not operate within those bounds. His theory of species development through natural selection was based on naturalistic evidence and reasoning which broke with the purposeful design thinking of Paley’s picture of nature. By relying on remote data, a chance-filled causal agent, and analogy-based reasoning, Darwin also made use of explanations that strayed significantly from conventional norms of scientific thinking.
The scientific innovations in natural selection theory and its break with natural theology has encouraged the development of ideological camps in reaction to Darwinism during the century and a half since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Many scientists and enthusiasts for the explanatory power of natural selection associated it with the power of naturalistic thinking in general to explain the character of the world, with it use of nature alone to explain nature. Scientific naturalists also pointed to chance-filled elements of Darwin’s theory to critique any notion of design; this school of thought defied religious claims to ultimate worldly purpose and posited that creatures evolve without purpose in response to naturalistic forces. Adherents of many religious, cultural, and philosophical traditions felt a sharply contrasting suspicion of Darwinism, not only for its apparent atheism or at least indifference to a divine creator, but also because its theories relied on such hypothetical uncertainty and seemed to portray the world operating without purpose (or morality). Darwin skeptics looked for purposeful action in original creation and in on-going natural functions, and have regarded natural selection’s lack of attention to these as an indication of the poverty of Darwin’s theory.
These sharply contrasting positions do not exhaust the reactions to Darwinism, which were filled with scientific doubts about the mechanisms of natural selection and the struggle for existence, and about the analogy to domestic selection. Meanwhile, there has been abundant religious acceptance of Darwinism for its scientific merits which leave untouched religion’s affairs of the spirit, and even endorsements of natural selection as God’s means of creating and sustaining the natural world. And yet, despite the last generation or more of scholarship discrediting the exclusive warfare motif of science and religion, this picture still has enduring power, perhaps because of the appeal of polarized contest in mass culture, or the drama of a good fight. A contemporary example of the endurance of this picture is the debate over the role of teleology in nature and the plausibility of intelligent design, which has been dominated by pictures of science and religion in contest. The conventional wisdom is that it pits naturalistic arguments for the purposeless operation of chance in nature, against an insistence (associated with religion) on design to explain the complexities of nature with purposeful intelligence, if not a purposeful divinity having created and now directing all of nature. There are variations within the movement: William Dembski talks about design, without reference to God, and he is keen to insist that the designs in nature may not be perfect (his word, “suboptimal”); however, Phillip Johnson states starkly that Darwinism is atheistic, while nature’s design points to God’s existence.1
In most discussion of intelligent design, as with the most prevalent understandings of the relation of science and religion in general, extremes prevail. Despite the layers of association of teleology with function and with the purposes of a selecting mind in lived experience, it is traditionally associated with purposes established in the past and inherent in development, with growth as a kind of fulfillment of a prior destiny, reaching as a matter of course to perfection or at least perfectly targeted to culminate in our present world dominated by humanity. Contemporary intelligent design partakes of this tradition with the anthropic view that the universe is finely tuned (created with craftsman-like care) to achieve contemporary forms, especially human beings. Recent arguments for intelligent design are updates, using more scientific and philosophically sophisticated language, of the tradition of natural theology. Natural theology’s arguments for the fulfillment of essential ideals and intelligent design’s teleology of anthropic development both partake of references to the past in the form of direction shaped by the character of the origin. This suggests a central role for creation in this stream of thought, and this attention to origin directs this school of thinking to the past, with the future as its fulfillment. By implication, the future is shaped if not actually predetermined by the past, and contemporary and future choices are constrained by that legacy.
Darwinism and Teleology
Despite the fame of the contest, it is the other interpretations of natural selection that actually come closer to the intentions of Darwin himself and to the fate of teleology in the wake of his theorizing. Natural selection is a probable hypothesis capable of explaining much, but with no claim to comprehensive certainty. It is a theory with rhetorical power to persuade based on its ability to knit together so many facts, and it is therefore a firm basis for on-going, constantly self-correcting scientific inquiry. As a research program, Darwinism neither requires materialistic lack of purpose nor dismisses a purposeful picture of nature or religious outlook on the world; it does, however, require the inquiry and evidence of scientific investigation. This suggests a chief scientific critique of intelligent design: its lack of verifiable research evidence. In addition, there is an effective irrelevance of its philosophical attitude to the work of science itself: the closest it can get to scientific results is in its potential motivation of scientists to do the work and the shaping of questions to be asked, and this could be said of philosophical materialism as well. Scientists also critique intelligent design by pointing to its essentially religious character, even calling it “intelligent design creationism,” or the Trojan horse of creationism to suggest its true agenda.2 In addition, intelligent design also presents problems for religion because, with its assumptions of a designed universe, understandable to humanity, the supernatural in such a domain would be chained to a human level of understanding. Ironically, for all its association with religion, intelligent design could be charged with picturing a world without letting God be God.
Despite all the attention that the rise of an intelligent design movement has achieved for teleological thinking, its approaches do not exhaust the meanings and applications of teleology. There is another form of this attention to purpose, and while hidden from public debate, it is hidden in an obvious spot. It is a prominent feature of the chief scientific theory that has spurred so much debate between science and religion: Darwinism. The teleology of the theory of species development through natural selection is, however, a different form of teleology, one that resembles functional behavior and purposes emerging over time. The most basic form of this teleology is a feature of the operation of adaptation, a central tenet of Darwinian theory. In natural selection theory, there are countless small variations within a species; some are better adapted to the environment than others; as the environment changes, those variations become resources for the species to adapt to those changes; the struggles to adapt to setting and to changes, and the emergence of species variability, new varieties, and whole new species in response, is in short, the process of natural selection. Each adaptation, whether for maintenance of the species for mere survival or as a step toward variety or species formation is at its most basic level a response to a functional need, a design sufficient to compete in the struggle for existence, and therefore the adaptation serves a functional purpose. For example, the adaptations of a thick stalk on a plant to resist the winter cold, or of long legs on a wolf to chase prey effectively, enable current survival, and the genetic traits for thicker stalks and longer legs may be the adaptations needed if winters become colder or the prey more swift or scarce. The teleology of this dimension of Darwinism is the operation of function to achieve an immediate purpose.
In addition, Darwinism exhibits another layer of teleology in its depiction of changes in nature over broader spans of time. Beyond the scale of one or a few lifetimes, those adaptations for survival are not only immediately crucial, but also effective agents for spurring species change. And those changes, within species, and more noticeably on the scale of whole living kind, are in the direction of more organization and greater complexity. For example, over many generations, a species of bird may develop a change in its beak to adapt to an increase of a particular hiding insect, and over vast eons, living creatures have evolved from asexual to sexual reproduction, and from herbivorous to carnivorous eating. Each of these developments involves an increasing sophistication of organizing structure and a more subtle and complex relationship with the environment. Darwin recognized these directions in the tree of life and proposed the mechanism of natural selection as the force for achieving these purposes. This is still a form of teleology, although without any prior or perfected goals. The teleology of the better adapted is purposeful and directed, but in a workaday way compared with the serene depictions of inner meaning unfolding or even ideal essential types manifesting in the past-oriented variety of teleology; the adapted are directed to the immediate purpose of survival. Darwinian teleology is law bound rather than miraculous; and the purposes achieved are continually unforeseeable (except perhaps in probabilistic patterns), rather than serving as the fulfillment of a prior plan. It is a teleology circulating in the present and directed toward the future: the adaptations of this teleology cope with present circumstances, and its evolutionary direction is in the making with the future contingent and unfolding.
It is important to note that this view of teleology in Darwinism is not uncontested. Some interpreters, starting in Darwin’s own time with Thomas Huxley, emphasized his turn away from natural theology and thus his break from design thinking. This school, with Michael Ghiselin and Richard Dawkins providing modern expression, associates teleology strictly with its traditional and most extreme forms, in association with religion and idealist philosophy. Many ardent defenders of Darwinism, from Asa Gray in Darwin’s time to Michael Ruse today, acknowledge a moderated form of teleology in the operation of natural selection. These differences reflect broader currents in science and religion, and in ideological debates in general: one side maintains a strict definition of the term in question, in this case, teleology sharply associated with religious and idealist purposes across the ages; and because Darwin broke with this, he broke with teleology—full stop. The other side maintains a more flexible definition of teleology, recognizing layers of its application ranging from function to conscious purpose to spiritual essence, and sees Darwin partaking of some of those layers. Just as Darwinism introduced a future-oriented teleology in contrast with its past-oriented version, so interpreters of Darwin can be grouped into strict teleologists and flexible teleologists based on their degree of willingness to loosen the definitional flexibility.
William James, Science, and Religion—and Teleology
William James developed his psychology, philosophy, and religious theories in the context of Darwin’s work and in response to the controversies surrounding it. He lived in the first generation of scientists convinced by Darwin’s arguments, and he both observed the rise of scientific enthusiasm that turned away from purpose in nature, and noticed the role of an adaptive teleology within the theory of natural selection despite its associations with naturalism. James was attuned to understanding the issues in terms of both their scientific and religious significance from the time of his upbringing with a deeply religious father and a youthful education in science. Even as he studied chemistry, physiology, and medicine in the 1860s, he was exposed to a range of scientific views, including a year spent on a natural history expedition with anti-Darwinian Louis Agassiz, for whom teleology was a comfortable feature of his idealistic science; however, he spent more time with other scientists who accepted Darwin, with many raising doubts about the teleological dimensions of nature. By the end of the 1860s, he grew deeply troubled by a range of issues including his relation to his father, his poor prospects for marriage, and his choice of vocation, along with the debates over science and religion. He was disturbed by the prospect of a purposeless world as he witnessed the confidence of scientific naturalists who sought to increase the authority of science as the only positive knowledge, even as he felt uneasy with the adherents of traditional religion and idealism who perceived these changes as a neglect of, or even an affront to, spiritual and idealistic aspects of human nature.3
As James ebbed out of his personal troubles, beginning his teaching career and marrying in the 1870s, he took his first steps toward his own resolution of the tensions between science and religion. He pursued a scientific career, first with a medical degree then in the teaching of physiology, but as he did so he maintained a steady interest in philosophical and religious issues. This combination would culminate in his first vocational commitment, his entry into the fledgling field of psychology, a meeting place of reflective philosophy and the newly authoritative science. He encountered teleology in the negative, as an outlook neglected or scorned by naturalistic science. Science was not only his profession, but in addition, it presented such a confident picture of a world that could be explained through its natural systems with methods that were improving each year. Therefore, the notion of “an Intelligent Planner of the material Universe” struck him as “a tissue of absurdities.” So far, he aligned with the scientific naturalists, but they made him restless with their certainty bordering on faith in their approach to science, and in their combative approach to debate, with Thomas Huxley, for example, “coming rapidly to a definite settlement of every question, deciding either Yes or No.”4
In place of accepting such ready answers, James was still asking questions—and therefore practicing just the kind of method that he was learning from science. The confidence in naturalistic answers seemed to deny this, so he proposed a “program of the future of science” that would sustain the inquiry but drop the prior commitment to strictly naturalistic readings of nature. In this social and intellectual setting, he was committed enough to science to doubt traditional views of teleology that rested on fixed past ideals; and yet, he had enough doubts about science as practiced and promoted, and enough philosophical and religious curiosity to wonder about questions of purpose. He set out to mediate these divergent realms because each held enough value that he could not neglect one or the other. So far, he admitted, their encounter was leading to trouble and discouragement. The inquiries of science bring constant change (as do other parts of modern life); such change is troubling to traditional hopes and values; without conciliating them, “we must admit that there is no truth anywhere.” Rather than resign to a life without purpose, he redefined the terms, with a teleology emerging from “continuing thought in a certain direction.”5 He found inspiration for this type of purposefulness derived from the future, first in observing the progressive path of science itself, and also from his work in psychology where he set out to understand the mind’s reflective and planning consciousness. In addition, he turned to another source directly from the center of his scientific education: Darwinism—but on this terrain, he encountered others with contrasting views.
Confronting Herbert Spencer and Evolutionary Naturalism
By the late 1870s, James was becoming increasingly frustrated with interpreters of Darwin who not only associated the theory of natural selection with a materialistic philosophy, but also with an assumption that the laws of evolution implied a deterministic, predictable set of behaviors for all creatures of the natural system. The chief advocate for this evolutionary naturalism was Herbert Spencer, and after a few years of teaching about “The Relations of Physiology and Psychology,” James developed a new course in psychology, offered in the philosophy department, with Spencer as his chief focus. His “reason for the course” was not his agreement with the British enthusiast for naturalistic science, but the need to “understand … the spirit of the age,” especially the “general search for origins” culminating “at last in Darwin.” Still, he was holding his nose. He saw “defects” in Spencer that he did not see in Darwin because of Spencer’s tendency to construct a bold “materialistically monistic” philosophy based on a selective reading of evolution.6
Even as he recognized Spencer’s influence, James lamented that “historically it has tended to this,” as he reflected in some sketchy notes for class, “Philosophies of selfishness, etc. [because] the higher has no meaning but the lower. Brute fact is right. No teleology. This the greatest point involved in materialism.” Where Spencer denied teleology and others were comfortable staying neutral on such unanswerable and unempirical questions, James resisted these positions by also drawing upon impulses from his religious education. Although he was willing to recognize some “difficulty with teleology,” he was convinced that “our [world] is shot through with purpose.” Beyond his learning and teaching in physiology, he was reflecting on teleology on his own time during intense discussions in the Metaphysical Club with Chauncey Wright and Charles Peirce on the philosophical and religious implication of the new sciences especially Darwinism, and in extensive private philosophical journals on the relation of empiricism and idealism. Through these exercises, he was hoping to discover ways to understand that “’evolution,’” although presented by Spencer’s school as a reason to claim a mechanistic lack of purpose in the world, is actually “an essentially teleological conception.” And so, James was not persuaded by Spencer’s outlook: although he found him “admirable, clever and ingenious,” he concluded “I am completely disgusted with the eminent philosopher, who seems to me more and more to be … absolutely worthless in all fundamental matters of thought.” And his writing is “an intensely two and sixpenny, paper-collar affair.” His final judgment in his notes for a concluding lecture on Spencer in class was simply, “Trash!”7 The major problem with Spencer’s writing was that he made broad generalizations about science, based on his naturalistic leanings and his eagerness to popularize, without much familiarity with the actual work of science. Ironically, given their public reputations as enthusiasts for science and sympathizers with religion, in his objections to Spencer, James was taking a stand in support of science.
On the day he taught his last class in the spring of 1877, James really let loose: “poor Spencer has been shaken in my jaws as a mouse is shaken by a tiger,” but he qualified his stance in admitting to his eagerness to come to terms with the scientific popularizer, since that tiger in him needed to “conquer his native timidity” which had made him pause before “fairly tak[ing] hold of the mouse.” The problem was not Spencer’s science, but his tendency to treat science with a “simple childlike faith, … uncritical, undiscriminating, worshipful, servile[, and] gullible.” Turning the tables on the way scientists often dismiss alternative medicines and philosophies, James said the resulting “Spencerian phraseology” was suitable to “quackish humbugs & pseudo-philosophasters,” such as those who “subscribe to the Popular Science monthly … and all the other brats of the chromo-philosophy.” When James’s dander was up, he tossed out much harsher criticism than his philosophical balance usually allowed, and he suggested his alliance with critics of Spencer who linked his scientific enthusiasms with the dominant business culture of the time. And yet, during the course, he showed his impulse to sympathize with Spencer’s hope to extend physiological understanding into the immaterial realms of mind: “There might be in the mind principles quite as natural as those of the outer world” of physical facts.8 In James, this naturalistic impulse was held in check, however, by the views from his youth that the will escaped scientific determination, with the natural not wholly explained by the material. It was these views that motivated his harsh criticism of Spencer and laid the groundwork for his desire to do science without reduction to naturalistic views of nature.
Finding Teleology in Darwinism, despite Herbert Spencer
As he taught and reflected privately on science, teleology, and Herbert Spencer, James also began composing a public statement about his mediating yet agitated position in defense of a role for purpose in Darwinism. In 1879, James published “Remarks on Spencer’s Definition of Mind” in which he expanded on his remarks in the classroom on the British enthusiast for evolutionary science; he found his books important enough to use, but he critiqued their assumptions. He opened his critique of Spencer dramatically by declaring that “the half-gods generally refuse to go … until the gods actually have arrived.” James had first used this dramatic phrase in a private notebook entry written when he was first studying science and developing his initial curiosity about the materialist approaches to nature. His essay on Spencer was designed to dismiss the extraneous naturalistic half of enthusiasm for science while remaining open to scientific work that broadened and deepened our understanding of nature and ourselves. Spencer evaluated “the entire process of mental evolution” on the assumption that the mind operated and evolved in the same way life in general functioned. And so, the mind evolved through “correspondence” or “adjustment of inner to outer relations.” In other words, the mental could be explained by the physical; the mind was a product of its physical surroundings; it was essentially passive, receiving the impress of environmental influences. James had high praise for the scope and “multitude of details” in Spencer’s framework, even as he was appalled by the views left out. This audacious picture of mental life was, according to James, “so vast and simple” and set in a “monotonous frame-work” which nonetheless integrated large numbers of facts, so that there was “no wonder that readers of a passive turn of mind are … impressed by it.” With the “defects of the formula … so glaring,” however, “on the slightest scrutiny, its solidity begins to disappear.”9
Although Spencer claimed to be dealing with all aspects of the mind’s evolution, James noted that he “mention[ed] only phenomena of cognition.” And with that tight focus on the mind’s rational capacities, he left out “all sentiments, all aesthetic judgments, all religious emotions and personal affections.” These realms of consciousness have “nothing whatever to do with simply cognizing the actual,” but they were every bit a part of “Mind.” Conventionally, they had been the stuff of humanistic, philosophical, and religious inquiry rather than what is usually associated with the scientific; and while Spencer attended to the scientific “perception of fact,” the mind also contained a range of other characteristics “of logic, of fancy, of wit, of taste, decorum, beauty, morals, and so forth.” Culturally, these were the characteristics that the average citizen assumed to be features of mind, but that were often neglected by intellectuals because they were too unrefined or messy. James reversed Spencer’s claim that philosophy and religion are abstract and unrelated to daily life, while science, with its empiricism, is full of common sense; instead, James argued that like the humanistic fields, “common sense estimates mental excellence by a combination” of a range of nonempirical traits–traits that were shaped by “the Ideal [and] dictated by subjective interests pure and simple.” In a direct slap to the empiricist assumptions of Spencer’s science, he added, “how few of them correspond to anything that actually is.” Spencer’s definition of mind was therefore a Procrustean Bed, with “the greater part of Mind, quantitatively considered, refus[ing] to have anything to do with Mr. Spencer’s definition.” Like the mythical Greek Procrustes, he simply dismissed the parts that did not fit his prior definition.10
The reason Spencer identified the empirical functions of mind as the whole of mind was because of his assumption, common to his generation of scientific naturalists and given impetus by their reading of evolutionary theory, that origin shapes identity. James recognized this position in quoting pioneering anthropologist and scientific naturalist Edward Tylor: “Whatever throws light on the origin of a conception throws light on its validity.”11 Similarly, for Spencer, the earliest beginning was the clue to anything’s “true and essential form.” This attention to origins was what generated Spencer’s privileging of factual information in mental operations because these empirical capacities came first, with other brain functions only evolving in later forms. While for Spencer origin was destiny, for James origin was simple, origin was elementary, origin was most simply just origin. Origin could suggest direction, but he could not agree that “the embryologic line of appeal can alone teach us the genuine essences of things.” To follow this line of thinking was to head into “absurd conclusions,” such as the view that “the polyp is to dictate our law of mind to us because he came first.” Another problem was that any one “original” was, in fact, relative: the polyp could also be analyzed in the same way, and “back of him lay the not-yet-polyp,” and so on. In addition, although the simple physical presence of a primitive life form suggested support for the physical focus of scientific analysis, the polyp “is as innocent of scientific as of moral and aesthetic enthusiasm.” James even turned the tables on both enthusiasms by borrowing a favorite word from the moralists, and using it within a conventionally scientific description: the lowly polyp “is the most … teleological of organisms” because “as he reacts at all, [it is] only for self-preservation.”12 With this observation, James drew on his commitment to a future-oriented teleology, a teleology in the making without any reference to essential traits; his setting was empirical, along with the scientists, with reference to the course of everyday life, even primitive life; but he was using a concept of a purpose-driven life usually associated with philosophy and religious beliefs.
Although Spencer claimed that his definition of mental correspondence was purely scientific, James detected ways in which it too was “frankly teleological.” According to this evolutionary theory, the mind was “fitted” or “related” to its surroundings, which meant that “intelligent mental action consisted in the establishment … of such inward relations and reactions as will favor the survival of the thinker.” This outlook “postulates a distinction between mental action pure and simple, and right mental action;” those right actions lead to “certain ideal ends,” namely survival, “which are pure subjective interests on the animal’s part.” And therefore, “no mental action is right or intelligent which fails to fit this standard.” These very nonempirical interests face “a future which may be,” and turn it toward a “shall be” based on those subjective directions. Despite this decided implication in Spencer’s thought, he left it unexpressed because of “its apparent implication of subjective spontaneity.” Such a view went against Spencer’s proposition that the mind “should be a pure product [and] absolute[ly] derivative from the non-mental.” James’s review of the argument, however, suggested that while there was no need for a full return to the religious and philosophical ideas about purpose, a scientific analysis of the situation actually presented a “simulation of an independent mental teleology.” And this was the worst problem in Spencer, because he proved himself to be as ardent a dogmatist as the metaphysicians he criticized, since the teleology embedded in the organism “seems to have frightened Mr. Spencer here, as elsewhere, away from a serious scrutiny of the facts.”13
James briefly eased his criticism of Spencer, even if it was, with a patronizing “indulgen[ce] to his timidity.” Giving Spencer the benefit of the doubt would produce a picture of human nature that included “superb cognitive endowments” and a “monotonously narrow passion for self-preservation.” Spencerian human beings would be potent, self-interested, cerebral giants. With such mental equipment and such undistractible self-interest, “they would soon be kings of all the earth,” but “the common sense of mankind”—and even Spencer himself—“would stand aghast at the thought of them” because “survival is only one out of many interests.” James went on to argue that the range of less functional traits, including the philosophical and the religious, but also the aesthetic, the moral, the social, the playful, the humorous, and the fanciful, were “all that make survival worth securing.” Although their activities may be “ill-‘adjusted’ to the outer world, … the story-teller, the musician, the theologian, the actor, or even the mere charming fellow, have never lacked means of support.” So, in simply raw practical terms, “it becomes necessary to modify Spencer’s survival formula still further, by introducing into the term environment a reference, not only to existent thing…, but also to ideal wants.” Ironically, then, Spencer’s theory of the human mind was not realistic because it ignored references to ideals. And James’s petition to include ideals in assessments of consciousness grew from an urge to be fully and fairly scientific. James again gave Spencer the benefit of the doubt by considering ways in which the qualities that do not directly promote survival may be included in Spencer’s framework. Although the “luxurious foliage of ideal interests” may be incidental to any one person or even “ruin the individual, they benefit the community as a whole.” This attention to the group in the midst of individual biology allowed the possibility of keeping the “unity and simplicity” of the “Spencerian formula” by folding in these nonempirical qualities as “so many … corollaries of [Spencer’s] law” of evolutionary survival.14 James therefore retained the Darwinism, but dropped the reductionist dismissal of the non-empirical parts of experience.
At this point in the essay, however, James grew tired of “propping up Mr. Spencer’s definition” by searching for allowances to let outside information fit within his framework. In Spencer’s own terms, the “side issues” that transcend survival interests and appeal to human ideals are simply “a wasteful array of energy.” In Spencer’s functional approach to evolution, according to which “ministry to survival” was the prime function in life, and therefore, “the sole criterion of mental excellence,” the range of other occupations of the human mind are just so much “luxury and amusement.” This view of consciousness suggested a personal and cultural observation. Because these functions, here deemed extraneous, are “by-products on too wasteful a scale, … every serious evolutionist ought resolutely to bend his attention hence-forward to the reduction in number and amount of these outlying interests.” By implication, scientific naturalists not only paid little attention to these less rational dimensions of life, but also called for “the diversion of the energy they absorb into purely prudential channels.” But such an analysis ignored “an analysis of what we do think,” which includes “error, nonsense, the worthless as well as the worthy, metaphysics, and mythologies as well as scientific truths.”15 James was chiding the scientific naturalists for ignoring whole swaths of human experience, and by tending strictly to experience, he was keeping faithful to a key premise of scientific and empirical methods.
James admitted that, given the culture of scientific inquiry, “a scientific man” may feel “something uncanny in this omnipresence of a teleological factor dictating how the mind shall correspond” because it smacked of subjectivity—in other words, not rooting the mind in things objective. And he himself made clear his scientific sympathies by noting that the explanation of “interests in non-mental terms” is not just an abstract “ideal should-be,” but can be explained “from an outward and physical point of view [as] nothing more than an objective future implication of the reaction … as an actual fact.” He translated mental interests from their usual association with idealist philosophy into the language of brain physiology and Darwinian biology: interests were “the idiosyncrasies of our nervous system,” which act as “mere ‘spontaneous variations,’ like any of those which form the ultimate data for Darwin’s theory.” Different interests were more or less adaptable, and so “a brain which functions so as to insure survival” was able to do so because it was “fitted to secure a certain end.” This picture of the mind also challenged the idealist expectation of finding absolute standards because the purpose “can only be hypothetically, not imperatively, stated.” At one time, “if such and such be the end, then such brain functions are the most intelligent,” but in another context, different functions may be more significant. Implying his frequent declarations for life without guarantee, James observed, “the only formal canon that we can apply to mind which is unassailable is the barren truism that it must think rightly,” and this would be a functional truth on the model of evolutionary adaptation, rather than an absolute truth. But he did not swing to wholesale subjectivism because he observed that interests were shaped by “our several individual hypotheses, convictions, and beliefs;” and while he was willing to break with traditional boundaries for defining these, he did maintain that “thought must correspond with truth” and that those interest-soaked thoughts are “verified only by the future.”16
James’s attention to the role of interest in human psychology did not undercut his scientific orientation, even as he distanced himself from scientific enthusiasts such as Spencer, and he added elsewhere, also Thomas Huxley and William Clifford. He turned the tables on their bold scientific reputation by making clear that his difference with them was that they were not scientific enough. And in fact, these scientific interests were functionally similar to “a vast number of similar aesthetic interests, and bear …with them no a priori mark of being worthier than these.” James’s trump card against the materialist scientists was to compare their positions with the convictions of popular religion: “How shall I say that knowing fact with Messrs. Huxley and Clifford was a better use to put my mind to than feeling good with Messrs. [Dwight] Moody and [Ira] Sankey,” who had just stormed to international prominence with their massive revivals on the British Isles and in Chicago in the 1870s. James planted the seed of his pragmatic philosophy in his solution to the question: the way to choose between the two sides was not just whim or subjective preference, but “by slowly and painfully finding out … in the long run [which] works best.” This process will, James proposed, produce a sense of “the reality of thought,” but that will emerge not by prior reference either to religious tradition or scientific objectivity, but rather to an idea’s “intensity, its seriousness—its interest in a word” when considered as part of his future-oriented “total upshot of experience,” the final fruit of his scientific recognition of teleology.17 By placing representatives of scientific and religious culture on the same level, James was undercutting the claims to special authority through the objectivity of scientific inquiry.
In yet another irony of James’s observations, the scientific naturalists “show themselves able to call most things in question” but “unable, when it came to the interest of cognition, to touch it with their solvent doubt.” Instead, they approached their own interests with convictions downright religious, “assum[ing] some mysterious imperative laid upon the mind, declaring that the infinite ascertainment of facts was its supreme duty, which he who evades is a blasphemer.” And yet, James argued that “the disinterested love of information, and still more the love of consistency in thought (that true scientific oestrus [mad impulse or sexual arousal]), and the ideal fealty to Truth (with a capital T), are all so many particular forms of aesthetic interest.” In effect, James was saying quite irreverently that scientific enthusiasts were aroused by the desire for consistency and uniformity in facts about nature. To use the language of one of his next early essays, not only were sentiments part of our rationality, but also rationality itself had elements of sentimentality.18
Applying the Darwinian Teleology
After taking his stand against Spencer and in favor of teleology in Darwin and scientific psychology, James took up a philosophical framework for evaluating how people come to choose their theoretical commitments, especially their choices on the spectrum of the debate between science and religion. He called his enterprise the psychology of philosophizing, and he first wrote his ideas in “The Sentiment of Rationality,” which he published in 1879 and then expanded to include with “The Will to Believe” in 1897. James wanted to travel through psychology to enrich philosophy, to broaden and deepen his reflective questions “in the light of … recent psychological speculations,” which he was studying and teaching. We philosophize because we “desire to attain a conception of the frame of things which shall on the whole be more rational than the rather fragmentary and chaotic one which everyone by gift of nature carries about with him under his hat.” He pinned down the philosophical phrasing with psychological reasoning: we “recognize its rationality … by certain subjective marks.” The psychological characteristic of thinking rationally is “a strong feeling of ease, peace, [and] rest.” This simple feeling, “full of lively relief and pleasure,” which sits behind complex theorizing or ideological commitments, brings “the transition from a state of puzzle and perplexity to rational comprehension.” This, in sum, is the sentiment of rationality: “This feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment, of its absoluteness.” It is enough; it feels right, even though most people do not care “to say anything about ourselves at such times.” James was inquiring into the adamantine realm of assumptions, akin to the comforting convictions he himself rested with during his personal crises; and through psychological inquiry, he was finding the core of generations of belief. With the sentiment of rationality, each person would adopt a view and say that it feels right. Why this should be “cannot be said,” James firmly noted, “but in a psychological essay, it is quite sufficient for our purposes to lay it down as an empirical fact.” He was exploring the mind’s generation of certainties, culled from a complex and ambiguous world, and he was laying down the psychological basis for the will’s commitment to belief; in “The Will to Believe;” precursive faith is the belief that “can help create the fact,” and here was the psychology that established any one believer’s particular precursive faith, in for example, a picture of nature with or without teleology, or the adequacy of science or religion to explain the world.19
The “sentiment of rationality” offered grounds for hearing out different sides, but it did not imply passivity. He maintained that “the knower is not simply a mirror … passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing.” Instead, even among scientists, “the knower is an actor, … register[ing] the truth which he helps to create.” The parallel with religious thought is that for both there are starting assumptions, taken on faith, serving as the “mental interests, hypotheses, [and] postulates” which, like the precursive faith of the will to believe “help to make the truth which they declare.” The human mind, with all its abundant interests, passionate convictions, and sometimes quirky ideals are not just “excrescences” of the physical body, but instead they provide the guiding “judgments of the should-be” which give the “mind, from its birth upward, a spontaneity, a vote.” Mistakes could still be made, but that was a reason to assess how convictions were formed, not to dismiss the process of their formation. Moreover, those interests could serve as clues about the underlying character of the world. In sharp contrast with the enthusiasts for science, James maintained that “we know so little about the ultimate nature of things, or of ourselves,” and so he scorned the stance of scientists dismissing religious and philosophical interests, noting “it would be sheer folly dogmatically to say that an ideal rational order may not be real.” After all, these ultimates, which we cannot know, and which “the ancients” reverently called the “Fate at the bottom of things—deeper than the gods themselves … [which] is the only unimpeachable regulative Law of Mind.” This stance welcomed standards for truth that Spencer would not accept. But here was the platform on which James erected his arguments for the right to believe. Accepting a core of uncertainty and an eagerness to dismiss rigid claims wherever they appeared, he also maintained there was no duty to believe any one position. That platform would include James’s mediation of science and empiricism with religious hopes and ideals which emerged in the already pragmatic leanings of his “Remarks on Spencer” essay and his ambivalent commentary on Spencer in Pragmatism itself in 1907: he praised Spencer because of his fidelity to the facts of nature, “the particular shape of this particular world’s carcase [stet],” but James was ready to depart from the British enthusiast for science when he noticed that the facts of nature also support “positive religious constructions.”20 More important to James than either abstracted claims to truth or eagerness to dismiss them was his attention to experience as it emerged from the natural facts.
James did not call Spencer’s view of consciousness wrong, but charged it with being limited, one choice among many. He proposed that “every individual” may “set up his private categorical imperative of what rightness or excellence in thought shall consist in.” In the absence of an overarching authority or fixed tradition, “these different ideals” do not “enter… upon the scene armed with a warrant,” but are instead, “at best, postulates,” which serve a purpose, a practical purpose. Using pragmatic wording, he noted that we choose based on “the general consensus of experience as a whole,” and the decision can only be made “ambulando, and not by any a priori definition.” With nothing to lean back on to guide the variety of ways to think about consciousness, “what umpire can there be … but the future?” In Pragmatism (1907), James equates his philosophy to a corridor in a hotel leading to many particular theoretical positions and commitments. Here already was the 1907 James, in the corridor leading to many philosophical options, and he was already opting for the pragmatic method precisely because its future-oriented teleology was what allowed for openness to that diversity. He famously described the teleology at work in his pragmatism as an alternative to the perennial uncertainty surrounding the blizzard of different views. Pragmatism was a “method of settling metaphysical disputes” by “tracing [the] respective practical consequences” of each particular stance. Recognition of the often unspoken purposes in each philosophical choice allowed respect for each, and he was motivated to endorse the pragmatic method itself precisely because of a sense of purpose—not one fixed and prior to experience, but with purposes, those practical consequences, unfolding in the future. In the 1870s, prodded by an embrace of evolution without Spencer, he had laid out a first plank of pragmatism: “we are all fated to be … teleologists.” In his later work, he went on to underscore that the key to his pragmatic method was a future-oriented teleology: pragmatism was “the attitude of looking away from first things [and] principles … and of looking towards last things fruits, consequences.” His teleological look toward consequences began with a recognition of the role of interests in mental life, the very material he studied in some of his physiological psychology: “Interests … are the very flour out of which our mental dough is kneaded.” With this proposition, he did not dismiss Spencer’s outlook, but contained it within his own, because “Spencer merely takes sides with the Ù›ÎÔÚ [telos] he happens to prefer, whether it be that of physical well-being or that of cognitive registration.”21 There was Mr. Spencer, holed up in one room of Hotel Pragmatism.
James made use of his future-oriented teleology in other aspects of his philosophy. Radical empiricism presents the mingled roles of objectivity and subjectivity in experience, and in effect, the distinction between them is based on purpose at hand. We confront pure experience, and we regard it as objective or subjective based on the functional needs of our perceptual stand. Also, in his experiential study of religion, he critiqued the tendency for scientific naturalists to link origin with essence as “medical materialism,” a “simple-minded system of thought” that reduces our “soul-flights by calling them ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition.” He goes on to present the varieties of religious forms, each tapping an august and elusive “more” that is at the heart of each but beyond each. As scientists, we can evaluate the patterns of the belief system and the biographies of the participants, and as philosophers, we can reflect on operations of belief in relation to knowledge, ideology, and practice. James’s deepest point is that, as with his teleology, religion engages in something more profound by looking forward and serving as an agent in helping to shape individual lives with “the chance of salvation.” Even though it is expressed in a variety of different ways, its “keynote is hope.”22 In each of his theories, James searches for purpose, which in worldly and human affairs is neither guaranteed not hopeless, but like Darwinian adaptation, is a purpose in the making.
Toward a Teleology Sufficient for Science and Religion
Attention to the role of teleology in James’s thought shows the importance of the unfolding future in his thinking. This orientation places James in close kinship with Darwinism, with adaptation always geared toward coping with the present environment and maintaining or changing the individual and species into the future. This future orientation, with its implied contingencies places both outlooks in contrast with the anti-Darwinians of natural theology and intelligent design, but also with the advocates of scientific naturalism such as Herbert Spencer and his intellectual descendents. Despite their sharp differences made famous by their battles over science and religion, both of these groups focus on the past through a concern with origins. In natural theology, this manifests in reading the world in terms of an original creation; in intelligent design, attention to origin appears in either a belief that designs in nature result from a creator God or at least an initial anthropic imprint on the world. For scientific naturalists, origin looms large because origin shapes identity, and this attention to the evolutionary beginnings of things can lead to reduction of new experiences, including those of the unpredictable future, in terms of the past and the familiar. While origins have a large influence, they cannot explain the whole, especially at moments of choice when the future is about to be created. Native American Vine Deloria is even harsher than James in dismissing the focus on origins, which he identifies as an unfortunate feature of Western thought that both creationists and scientists share. Like James the radical empiricist, Deloria notes that “our most accurate knowledge is the simple observation of empirical evidence. Without this way of thinking, “the question of origin” has trapped the culture “between mindless religious propaganda and … unrelenting scientific orthodoxy.”23
Similarly, James did not object to science or religion if conducted without imported philosophical certainties of either the naturalistic and reductionistic, or the traditionalist and unquestioning variety. In both cases, their certainty and their focus on origins, especially the origins significant for their selective commitments—their sentiment of rationality—amounted to a claim to authority through abstraction. At their most extreme, they either reject teleology absolutely, or embrace an idealistic and prior purpose. Based on Darwin and his own experience, James developed a future-oriented teleology claiming a place between lack of purpose with the free-wheeling nihilism that it implies (and that religious figures fear) and the idealistic fixed purpose with its rigid limits on human inquiry and choice (that naturalists dread). The philosopher Michael Polanyi admired this position. While most moderns “remained committed to … the … polarities … [of] blind mechanical necessity and total freedom,” James was part of a small group who “offered … first-rate teleological alternatives” to this stark choice. James’s was a “looser view of teleology” with “intelligible directional tendencies … operative in the world without our having to suppose that they determine all things.”24 With his looser, future-oriented, directional teleology, James did not take issue with claims to supernatural belief, but he did observe that each claim is transmitted through some natural means: sacred text, prophetic or incarnational person, or other holy manifestation; and he did not join his scientific colleagues in presuming that the natural world can be adequately understood through exclusive focus on physical facts and material explanations. Teleology has been traditionally associated with extranatural claims, but those religious and idealistic beliefs have natural footsteps, and nature itself is shot through with directional purpose. James was not so much demoting the supernatural as elevating the natural, and even more, observing their intermingling, and offering a chastened reverence and respect for the claims emphasized on each side. Science and religion each face, as he wrote in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” (1898), the “trackless forest” of the world’s mysteries beyond our ken yet tempting us to constant inquiry.25
The Darwinian and teleological insights of William James have potential to serve as beacons in the contemporary dialogue of science and religion, which is at least as acrimonious as the debate in his own time—and which has developed deep cultural resonance and tremendous political force well beyond its nineteenth-century variety. The future-oriented teleology that Darwin suggests and that James articulates in his psychology, philosophy, and religious thought shows a potential to offer appreciation of the religious impulses that motivate the advocates of intelligent design while remaining committed to professional scientific practice. James’s perspective suggests stepping back from the controversy and the now well-known antagonistic positions of each side; a Jamesian stance in the controversy would be to ask each contestant, What do you hope to achieve? … and What is most important to you? The scientists would likely say, The continuation and promotion of scientific inquiry; and the intelligent design advocates would likely say, The support of a sense of purpose in life. Those are generalizations, of course, and do not fully address all the temperamental associations and particular intellectual positions at stake. But for getting along across knotty cultural and intellectual differences, a future-oriented teleology may offer a chance for mediation, and if not for full settlement of issues, at least for hearing each other out and prevention of the worst dismissal and sacrilege of each side.
Until this more peaceful and productive day, the debates go on, and an evaluation of science and religion in terms of the role of teleology suggests a grounds for understanding the debaters: strict debaters (like strict teleologists mentioned above) are likely to find sharp differences between the two fields, declare their allegiance to one side, and harbor suspicion toward the other; flexible debaters (like flexible teleologists)constitutionally gravitate toward seeing relationships between the fields, and from those relations bridges can be formed developing understanding, encouraging mediation, and fostering conciliation of differences. These distinctions not only echo the different interpretations of teleology in Darwinism, but in addition they are reminiscent of long-standing differences in evolutionary biology over where to draw the line between species; at what point is a variety an actual new species? Yes, even in science, there is room for judgment calls. “Splitters” tend to find new species readily in the array of changes that a strand of variation brings to a population; “lumpers” tend to be more comfortable with the varieties around a species type. The great scientist and ardent anti-Darwinian Louis Agassiz was a notorious splitter, very ready to detect new species from the varieties he studied and collected. One colleague who disagreed with his science even quipped that he swore off attending his lectures because “[I] dread he will take me for a new species.”26
Like Agassiz, strict teleologists and strict debaters in science and religion are the philosophical splitters, eager to identify differences; by contrast flexible teleologists and flexible debaters are the lumpers among us, more eager to see relationships in terminology and in disciplinary fields. In the pools of experience, where factors of similarity and difference jostle about, showing influence and commanding attention at various times and in different circumstances, both sides have their place: sometimes sharp distinctions are important, and at other times, attention to relationships is crucial. An observation that James made about individual differences may also apply to ideologies, camps of debate, and theory formation: “there is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is, is very important.”27 The sharp differences between the ideological camps over teleology and often between science and religion, and even within the scientific community, have indeed been very important—in forming theories, shaping policies, and even in establishing cultural camps—but it is also important to remember that sharply split differences are not the only factors. In some ways, people are not so very different, terms do have some flexibility, even differing fields have some relationships; and people—with all our spots on the cultural rainbow and the range of ideas we carry under our hats—are perhaps not really so very different after all.
In place of expecting prior plans or lack of purpose, what natural selection points to and what James and kindred thinkers have developed is the view that the world is contingent, with designs in the making. The future orientation of this teleology is sufficient design for our human purposes and may even be sufficient to build bridges between science and religion. This is an outlook that makes use of science to present hopeful possibilities for the religion and morality that many embrace. It is, however, not a hope that is guaranteed even as it avoids the drainage of hope that can come with the contrasts to such certainty, which often manifest in discouragement or despair. Instead, it is a worldview based on James’s proposition that our engagement in the world “feels like a real fight.”28 In place of the polarization of science and religion, James’s outlooks suggest ways to make use of each of these fields—after all, there is a lot of work to be done.
1 I provide an overview of the warfare motif, present some challenges to it, and review some fairly recent scholarship on this terrain in “Beyond the Warfare of Science and Religion in American Culture–and Back Again” in Religious Studies Review 26 (2000): 29-35; Phillip Johnson, “Creator or Blind Watchmaker?” First Things 29 (1993): 8-14; and William Dembski, “What Intelligent Design is Not,” in Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design, Dembski and James Kushiner, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), pp. 7-23.
2 See, for example, Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, Robert Pennock, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001); Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (New York: Times Books/Henry Hold and Co., 2006); and Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism, Andrew Petto and Laurie Godfrey, eds. (New York: Norton, 2007).
3 See my Science and Religion in the Era of William James, Volume One: Eclipse of Certainty and Volume Two: Conciliating Truth and Change (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995 and under contract).
4William James papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Notebook 3, Sept[ember] 10, , p. 58; James, review of Huxley, in Comments, and Reviews, in The Works of William James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 205.
5 William James to Charles Eliot Norton, November 14  and December 9 , in The Correspondence of William James, Ignas Skrupskelis and Elizabeth Berkeley, eds. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 4:93-94 and 95; also in ECR, p. 691; and William James papers, “Cause Philosophizing Identity Hegelism &c” Notebook 8, pp. 2-3, and printed as [Note on Empiricism] in Manuscript Essays and Notes, in The Works of William James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 160.
9 James, “Remarks on Spencer,” in Essays in Philosophy [EPH], in The Works of William James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 7-8. Spencer’s idea of correspondence appears in his Principles of Psychology, pp. 293-94.
27 “The Importance of Individuals,” in The Will to Believe, p. 191, and repeated in “The Gospel of Relaxation” (1899), in Talks to Teachers (1899), in The Works of William James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 122-3.