From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again
Publication Date: September 1, 2009
A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution
Darwin's theory of evolution remains controversial, even though most scientists, philosophers, and even theologians accept it, in some form, as an explanation for the variety of organisms. The controversy erupts when the theory is used to try to explain everything, including every aspect of human life, and to deny the role of a Creator or a purpose to life.
The overreaching of many scientists into matters beyond the self-imposed limits of scientific method is perhaps explained in part by the loss of two important ideas in modern thinking--final causality or purpose, and formal causality. Scientists understandably bracket the idea out of their scientific thinking because they seek explanations on the level of material and efficient causes only. Yet many of them wrongly conclude from their selective study of the world that final and formal causes do not exist at all and that they have no place in the rational study of life. Likewise, many erroneously assume that philosophy cannot draw upon scientific findings, in light of final and formal causality, to better understand the world and man.
The great philosopher and historian of philosophy, Etienne Gilson, sets out to show that final causality or purposiveness and formal causality are principles for those who think hard and carefully about the world, including the world of biology. Gilson insists that a completely rational understanding of organisms and biological systems requires the philosophical notion of teleology, the idea that certain kinds of things exist and have ends or purposes the fulfillment of which are linked to their natures--in other words, formal and final causes. His approach relies on philosophical reflection on the facts of science, not upon theology or an appeal to religious authorities such as the Church or the Bible.