The What and the How

26 07 2010

You are probably looking at the title and asking, “what are you talking about?” Well, this topic came up during a discussion I am involved in on my local college campus. We’ve been discussing the idea of telos for some time now. For those not familiar with the word or the concept, telos means end, purpose or goal. In other words, when the author of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asked the question, “What is the chief end of man?” he was asking, “What is man’s telos or purpose?” The pursuit of meaning has been, I believe, one of the oldest pursuits of man.

So, your asking, what does the title of this blog post have to do with this discussion of telos? Let me explain. The question was asked whether we could tell what a thing was by how it was made. In other words, can we describe a thing, its composition, its features and make up, and determine what it is? Let’s use a hypothetical to try to illustrate. Suppose an alien craft was passing by our planet and something fell off and landed in such a way that it remained completely intact and undamaged. Suppose also that this object was something that we had never seen, made from a material of which we were completely unfamiliar. In other words, it is a completely foreign object to our observers, scientists and philosophers.

Our researchers would take pictures of it, try to determine what it is made from, and try to determine its function. Let’s also suppose that they were able to reduce the material make up to its base elements, all of which were common to the universe, even though the final make up of those elements was unfamiliar (I am supposing that the aliens had some technique to uniquely change the structure of these materials into a unique finished material for the sake of this illustration).

So, we could determine what its make up was, its shape, size and weight, but would that tell us what it was? No, I don’t think so. In essence, we would need to know the intent of the designer to know what it was and what its function was. In other words, we could not determine a “what” from a “how”.

Sometimes, I feel like that is what many are trying to do today. We look at evolutionary theory and theories are constructed as to how some creature developed, or even, some feature of the creature. But, does that description, even if it is valid, determine what that thing is? If we knew nothing else about the feature or the creature, like the foreign object from the alien craft, would merely describing its make up and development determine its telos? I don’t think so. Now, suppose we are the product of purely natural processes, how would we determine our telos, or would we even have a telos? I don’t think that natural processes determine telos. Telos always seems to come from the mind of a designer. Machines obviously don’t think and don’t determine their own purpose.

If we are merely glorified machines, I don’t know why it would be any different for us. In fact, I am not sure what it would mean to determine one’s own purpose and if it could be done, why any purpose, say being an evil dictator, would be any worse or better than determining that you were going to help the poor. After all, given the scenario that one determines his or her own purpose, who could say that the one that he or she chose was wrong.

I don’t see that a how could determine a what. I think that the chief end of man must be determined by the one who designed up and designated our purpose. He has revealed that the chief end of man is to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.