Heresy and the Law of Unintended Consequences

26 March 2009

With special reference to design theories

Few people read this blog; fewer still comment on it. Thus it is an event of some moment when I receive a comment. A few days back I received a comment on Seeking Symmetry.

If I had regular readers, they would know that I frequently express my debt to evolutionary theory. Seeking Symmetry was an elaboration of some of the ideas in Selective Communities, both of which sought to apply a selective paradigm to the understanding of matters commonly conceived teleologically. It is precisely the adoption of an unorthodox perspective that makes this an interesting exercise.

The nameless commentator on Seeking Symmetry gave me the title of a book (The Design Matrix) and the address of a blog ( with the suggestion that I might find some insights from the approach they represented.

Human intuition naturally favors teleological explanations. There are, not surprisingly, both teleological and non-teleological explanations for this. Whatever the explanation (and however rare serious thinking may be in human experience), non-teleological thinking remains the more difficult exercise, hence unusual and unfamiliar. And it is the unusual and unfamiliar exercise of thought that yields insights otherwise unobtainable.

Thus there was little of interest to me in the recommended book and blog, though the admittedly pseudonymous author did give me an idea. Those familiar with the drama of explicitly teleological thinking in our time will know the evolutionary progression from creationist to cdesign proponentsists to intelligent design. It occurs to me that this evolutionary succession could well have further unintended consequences (hence non-teleological consequences).

Suppose, under political pressure to present teleological thinking in a non-theological form, the creationists come up with a theory (however daft) sufficiently purged of theology that, even it if isn’t a science, it does qualify as a non-theological theory. This theory might then be chanced upon by someone innocent of the controversy that generated it, and, finding in it the teleological thought that answers to their intuitive needs, uses the theory to formulate a religion. Needless to say, this religion would not be identical to that which inspired the original formulation of the theory. One can easily imagine sincere worship of intelligent designers, as one finds sincere worship of John Frum among cargo cults.

All this may sound a bit odd, but the history of heresy is filled with fascinating oddities. And this is what we are now witnessing: the evolution of a new heresy. Intelligent design is not only not science, it is also not orthodox, and as orthodoxy is under considerable pressure at present, it seems irresponsible in the extreme to be generating novel heresies, however well intended.

So the preceding reflections bring me to the following insight, which I will not attempt to explain in detail at present: two components are necessary to transcending the theological (hence the teleological) conception of history — a naturalistic conception of history and a formalistic conception of history. To that end, naturalization of the supernatural and formalization of the informal both point toward a rigorous conception of history free of teleology.

Given that religion has historically been understood as the vehicle of transcendence par excellence, it is ironic that we now stand in need of conceptions that allow us to transcend religion. Although I have conceived an extreme dislike for the term “spiritual,” given its present use for the facilitation of mauvaise foi, we might nevertheless observe that, if that which serves as a vehicle of transcendence is spiritual, then those scientific and philosophical concepts that allow us to transcend religion and teleological thinking constitute a “higher” form of spirituality than that which they supersede.


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