Humus Sapiens, Part III

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Do-it-yourself DNA kit Whence telos?

We have seen (previous essays on this page) that a sufficiently complex and highly ordered arrangement of elements and molecules, gathered into pattern-carrying structures of proteins, enzymes, genes, DNA, cells and so on, can display the properties of consciousness and thoughtfulness.  “Thinking dust”, we called it-humus sapiens.

Our abilities to think, reflect and be conscious of ourselves and others would seem to be distinctive capacities which make us “human”.  According to evolutionary theory, these complex capacities and behaviors have emerged over time, as biological organisms became more and more highly ordered.  Through countless iterations of mutation and adaption, the biological structure of humus sapiens eventually became sufficiently highly organized to support emergent properties like consciousness, thought, and even “soulishness”.[1]

 Neurobiology and theology agree that this “soulishness”, whatever its origins–whether derived from divine inspiration or emergent from chance mechanistic mutations–is a trait of humans, a property of this being we call humus sapiens.

 And from experience we know that this “soulishness” gives us the ability to discern meaning in the world around us.  We discern patterns and purpose in our surroundings, both in the impersonal realm of nature, as well in our behaviour and relationships.  Order is there to be seen.  We can think about it, describe it, study it, measure it, admire it, paint it, even write a poem or sonata to display it.  But toward what end?  Toward what direction?  Toward what purpose?

 This is the “teleological” question–the question of “ends” (telos).   This is also a fundamental question of ethics–by what ultimate purpose, goal or end (telos)  shall we evaluate the choices and direction of life?

 Since the order seems to be built into the creation, we may sensibly look at the “orders of creation”, and ask what we find there.  There are patterns to be seen.  Sometimes the patterns seem obvious, like the crytalline structure of a snowflake, and sometimes they seem hidden, like the problem of innocent suffering.  Our inclination however, is to look for patterns wherever can find them.  This pattern-seeking exercise seems to be the motivation underlying scientific pursuits of knowledge in every category of exploration, from physics to sociology. 

We proceed in intellectual pursuits by recognizing and analyzing patterns (order) in our natural surroundings and our personal experiences. But what gives those patterns meaning?   Meaning and prupose (telos) seem to lie outside the realm of the pattern itself.  Meaning demands a context within which to interpret the pattern. 

Whence meaning?  Whence telos?  Here is where religion comes in, again, as a distinctively human behaviour.  What has religion got to do with it? Michael Polyani answers this question well:

The representative element in all religious orientations portrays the world as meaningful; that is, it portrays the world as something more than a conglomeration of physical and chemical interactions issuing, to no purpose whatsoever, in whatever ephemeral globs the equilibration of forces renders necessary or probable.[2]

 Religion gives meaning because it explains the world as more than a chance happening, a collision of atomic particles without purpose.  More on this in the next essay…

 (Did you spot a pattern or find meaning in the photo above?  It’s a do-it-yourself DNA kit.)

[1] Neuroscientist Warren Brown describes these as “emergent levels of causal efficacy.”  In other words, the soul does not really exist as an entity; but rather, the property of “soulishness” emerges as a trait of the highly organized biological entity. W. Brown, “Neurobiological Embodiment of Spirituality and Soul”, in From Cells to Souls-and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature, ed. by Malcolm Jeeves (Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 58-76, esp. 65-7.  Brown attempts, with questionable success, to show that his understanding of human “soulishness” is a theologically tenable idea because it is compatible with “the potential of an embodied physical person to be cognizant of a nonmaterial world and to experience relatedness to the divine”, p. 76.

[2] Michael Polanyi & Harry Prosch, Meaning (University of Chicago, 1975) p. 161.