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The Table Video

Keith Ward

Science Without Purposes

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward discusses the project of fitting the concepts of purpose (or teleology) into a reductivist view of science.


I think since, what you might call, Newtonian science began, there’s always been a major problem about how free actions, or conscious intentions, or purposes, could exist in nature, because the Newtonian view is, you’ve got laws of nature, they don’t have any purposes in them, they’re just mathematically statable laws, like the inverse-square law and gravity.

And, of course for Newton, God made the laws, but he made the laws like making a clock. So, you make the laws, but the clock itself doesn’t have any purposes. God had a purpose in making it, but the purpose is not in nature. So, that was a huge change from Aristotle, who thought that everything had a purpose, that it sought to fulfill, that had some state, that it ought to aim at. In the Aristotelian context, human purposes, human free actions made a sort of sense, because, you could say, well humans are just like other things, they’re aiming at the good life.

So, you think what is the purposes of the good life and how can I attain it, what are the virtues. But, once that view changed about nature, you just had laws of nature, then, ideas of purpose got lost. So, one half of science, I think only one half of it, has become more and more purposeless, that is to say mechanistic. And it would actually seek to eliminate any idea of purpose, or goal, or value, or morality, or consciousness, from nature.

So, that leaves you with a reductivist, materialist view, where everything can be analyzed down to its basic material components. And that’s all there is, that explains everything there is. And then you can’t explain what mind is. You can say, you can do it, philosophers like Dan Dennett, pretend they know, but actually no fully informed person would say that any neuroscientist has explained how it is that consciousness arises, or what it is.

We have to say, this subject is in its infancy and everything is open. But what’s interesting from the philosophical point of view, is that very few philosophers are convinced that materialism is true, that is, a reductive sort of materialism, which says, you just explain consciousnesses purpose and value in terms of laws, physical laws, of the interactions of very small physical particles.

That’s a totally unconvincing view. It’s defended by some good philosophers, they had to be good to make any sense of it at all, but, in fact, I doubt whether their view will have any lasting influence. If you think about having a purpose, think of a person who’s thinking what to do and what you do, is you think about future possibilities, so, that’s already a very difficult thing, if you just have a material account of the world. Because, how can you have an event in the present, which is somehow oriented towards the future?

If you think of the future, then, that seems to be difficult, for a purely material thing. Here’s a table, it’s purely material, there it is, there’s nothing future about it. But if I think about my future possibilities, what I might do tomorrow, I’m having a brain event, but it’s somehow connected to the future in a special way. So, that’s a big problem, it’s called, in philosophy, intentionality, or “aboutness”.

You have a thought, which is about something. Well, how on earth can you give a descriptive account of a material state, which includes aboutness? It’s not only a state, but it’s about something else. So, I think, that’s one of the major differences, mental description and the physical description, the sense of aboutness. And then, of course, the other part of that is, that you decide to do something for the future. If you have a purpose, you decide to do it. And again, decisions are very difficult to account for.

If you talk about laws of gravity, you don’t normally think, things are making decisions about whether to be attracted to other objects or not. So, there’s nowhere to get this language in. So, decision, aboutness, thought, feeling to all these things, are very difficult for a materialist to explain. They have to try to do it, of course, but I don’t think anybody’s really quite satisfied with it. [peaceful music]