Does Physics Admit a Teleology?

Wolfgang Smith

Our question—“Does physics admit a teleology?”—proves, first of all, to be incurably philosophical inasmuch as it has no meaning whatsoever for the physicist as such. By its very modus operandi, physics has eyes for quantity alone, which entails that teleology is distinctly beyond its ken.

This rather obvious fact may have become somewhat obscured with the advent of quantum physics inasmuch as the resultant quandary has at times tempted physicists to encroach upon philosophic turf. Yet, even though the new physics has relinquished the Newtonian premises, it is still committed to a world void of purpose—void of “telos” in the widest sense—for the simple reason that a teleology cannot be conceived in purely quantitative or “operational” terms. This does not however mean that physics excludes telos as something contradicting its laws, but simply that it transcends what the physicist as such can conceive. Now as before, what physics portrays is indeed “a dull affair” as Whitehead noted a century ago: still no more than “the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.” By its very modus operandi, this is in principle all that physics as such has to offer in regard to a Weltanschauung; the question whether “physics admits a teleology” proves thus to be incurably philosophical.

We commence our inquiry with the basic recognition—indigenous to the sapiential traditions—that the cosmos does not stand alone: that it is neither self-caused nor self-sufficient, but is brought into existence and “held in being” by a metacosmic Reality, which though variously conceived and designated, we may refer to—in keeping with the Judeo-Christian tradition—by the venerable name “God.

What will concern us above all is the universally acknowledged fact that this ultimate Reality constitutes not only the first cause, but the last end as well of all that exists. And although the various traditions may differ in their respective conceptions of that last end, the notion of a universal telos perceived as a “return to the Origin”—and thus as a certain “union” with the Ground of Being—appears to be common to all, be they of the East or of the West. Despite the fact, moreover, that the quest for the eschaton of man, the anthropos, has of course dominated these inquiries, the destiny of the cosmos at large has received its share of scrutiny as well: and that, clearly, is what we need presently to consider.

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We propose to take our cue from Meister Eckhart, the medieval master who appears to have probed the cosmic implications of the ultimate metaphysics more profoundly than most theologians. Let us begin, then, by contrasting his Weltanschauung with the physicist’s perception of Nature as “a dull affair: merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”  “Not so” responds Eckhart in effect; on the contrary: “All creatures are by nature endeavoring to be like God”! The contrast is as profound as it is razor-sharp—and the Meister goes on:

The heavens would not revolve unless they followed on the track of God or of his likeness. If God were not in all things, Nature would stop dead, not working and not wanting; for whether thou like it or no, whether thou know it or not, Nature is seeking, though obscurely, and tending towards God.1Meister Eckhart, C. de B. Evans, trans. (London: Watkins, 1925), vol. I, p. 115.

It should be noted, first of all, that the idea of Nature “seeking, though obscurely, and tending towards God” is by no means unprecedented in Christian tradition: has not St. Paul presented us with the reverse side of the same doctrine when he declares that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now”?2Rom. 9:22 Whether or not, therefore, there is to be a “return” of the universe to its Source—an apocatastasis—it is that End, that supreme telos itself, that impels the cosmos to follow its trajectory.

But clearly: given that the modus operandi of physics deals exclusively with the quantitative dimensions of the cosmos, none of this has meaning for a physicist as such. And yet, if indeed Nature “groaneth and travaileth” seeking “rest in God”—if that is more than pious poetry—how could this fact not impact the actual laws of physics? There must consequently be a connection, a nexus of some kind between the aforesaid telos and the actual equations of motion—whether that relation be comprehensible to the physicist or not. And what is more: that “scientifically invisible” connection should be discernible from a metaphysical point of vantage: that is what we now propose to verify.

The problem, of course, is that the laws of physics, given as they are in mathematical terms, bear no reference to a telos—let alone to Pauline “travail” or Eckhartian “rejoicing”! It is hard to imagine, therefore, how one could possibly discover in these formulae a spoor of the aforesaid telos. And yet, from a metaphysical point of vantage one would expect some feature, some “mark” of the sought-after End to manifest in the mathematical formalism of physics itself.

Let us return, then, to Meister Eckhart and fix our attention upon the phrase “seeking, though obscurely, and tending towards God.” Never mind that this notion strikes the contemporary scientific mind as infantile: our job is to see whether or not it connects with the equations of physics. And no sooner has the question been posed than it becomes apparent that, by implication, Nature moves—not for the sake of motion—but precisely for the sake of rest. And hence it moves sparingly in some appropriate sense. In fact, of all the ways to get from a state A to a subsequent state B, Nature will choose a path which, according to some metric, requires what may be termed the least “amount of motion.” We have put the phrase under quotes because it remains to be defined. Yet, by now, what stands at issue stares us in the face: it can in fact be none other than what physicists term “action,” which is defined not simply for a particle, but for a physical system as a whole, subject to given forces; and the corresponding law has long been known as the “principle of least action.”

Dating back to the early days of Newtonian mechanics, it is associated chiefly with the names of Euler, D’Alembert, Lagrange, and Hamilton, and has been formulated in various ways. As “the principle of least action” properly so called—that is to say, in its Lagrangian formulation—it affirms that in moving from a state A to a state B, a physical system will choose the path for which a certain integral—definitive of “action”—attains a minimum (or at least a “stationary”) value. Let me remind the mathematically informed reader that what stands in question is the integral over a path from A to B in the n-dimensional configuration space of the Lagrangian function L, defined as the kinetic minus the potential energy of the system. The fact is that the equations of motion for classical physics can be obtained from the given integral via the calculus of variations—which is to say that, of all the possible paths from A to B, Nature chooses the path of “least action.”

Certainly there are other ways of deriving the classical equations; yet it appears that the principle of least action takes precedence over these: for one thing, as a science journalist points out,3Natalie Wolchover, “A Different Kind of Theory of Everything,” The New Yorker, 19 February 2019. among all these ways—all workable, all useful—“only the principle of least action extends to the quantum world.” Now, what relates that principle to the Eckhartian tenet is the fact that, inasmuch as the Reality underlying the cosmos transcends both space and time (and therefore undergoes no “action” at all), the best likeness or approximation to the metacosmic state a trajectory in configuration space is able to attain is none other than the path specified by the principle of least action itself. So far, therefore, from being void of implications for physics as such, the Eckhartian stipulation leads directly to what has long been deemed the most elegant derivation of the classical dynamics, which moreover proves to be the master-key to the laws of physics at large. It turns out that in addition to its purely physical significance, the principle of least action carries thus a teleological sense undetectable on the basis of physics per se. Little does the physics community surmise that this celebrated principle accords in truth with the “infantile” notion that the universe at large is indeed “seeking, though obscurely, and tending towards God”!

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1 Meister Eckhart, C. de B. Evans, trans. (London: Watkins, 1925), vol. I, p. 115.
2 Rom. 9:22
3 Natalie Wolchover, “A Different Kind of Theory of Everything,” The New Yorker, 19 February 2019.