Teleology [tel-ee-ol-uh-jee] is a philosophical idea that things have goals or causes. It is the ‘view that developments are due to the purpose or design which is served by them.’ An example would be Aristotle’s view of nature, later adopted by the Catholic Church. The word ‘teleological’ comes from the Ancient Greek ‘telos,’ which means ‘end’ or ‘purpose.’ A simpler example would be a tool such as the clock, which is designed by man to tell the time. Whether or not an entity (man or god) is needed to cause teleology to happen is one of the most important questions.

All cultures we know of have creation stories in their religions. However, much of science operates on the principle that the natural world is self-organizing. This applies particularly to astronomy and biology, which were once explained as the action of a deity, and are now seen as natural and automatically self-organizing. Cybernetics is the basic science of self-organizing systems. The general issue of whether the original sense of teleology applies to the natural world is still a matter of controversy between religion and science.

A thing, process, or action is teleological when it is for the sake of an end, i.e., a ‘telos’ or final cause. In general, it may be said that there are two types of final causes, which may be called ‘intrinsic finality’ and ‘extrinsic finality.’ A thing or action has an extrinsic finality when it is for the sake of something external to itself. In a way, people exhibit extrinsic finality when they seek the happiness of a child. If the external thing had not existed that action would not display finality. A thing or action has an intrinsic finality when it is for none other than its own sake. For example, one might try to be happy simply for the sake of being happy, and not for the sake of anything outside of that. Since the ‘Novum Organum’ (1620) of Francis Bacon teleological explanations in science tend to be deliberately avoided because whether they are true or false is argued to be beyond the ability of human perception and understanding to judge. Some disciplines, in particular within evolutionary biology, are still prone to use language that appears teleological when they describe natural tendencies towards certain end conditions; but these arguments can almost always be rephrased in non-teleological forms.

In the ‘Phaedo,’ Plato argues that true explanations for any given physical phenomenon must be teleological. He bemoans those who fail to distinguish between a thing’s necessary and sufficient causes, which he identifies respectively as material and final causes: ‘Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and ‘binding’ binds and holds them together.’

Plato here argues that the materials that compose a body are necessary conditions for its moving or acting in a certain way, but that these materials cannot be the sufficient condition for its moving or acting as it does. For example, if Socrates is sitting in an Athenian prison, the elasticity of his tendons is what allows him to be sitting, and so a physical description of his tendons can be listed as necessary conditions or auxiliary causes of his act of sitting. However, these are only necessary conditions of Socrates’ sitting. To give a physical description of Socrates’ body is to say that Socrates is sitting, but it does not give us any idea why it came to be that he was sitting in the first place. To say why he was sitting and not not sitting, we have to explain what it is about his sitting that is good, for all things brought about (i.e., all products of actions) are brought about because the actor saw some good in them. Thus, to give an explanation of something is to determine what about it is good. Its goodness is its actual cause – its purpose, telos or ‘reason for which.’

Similarly, Aristotle argued that Democritus was wrong to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because doing so neglects the aim, order, and ‘final cause,’ which brings about these necessary conditions: ‘Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature. Now they are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end….’ In the ‘Physics’ Aristotle rejected Plato’s assumption that the universe was created by an intelligent designer using eternal forms as his model.

For Aristotle, natural ends are produced by ‘natures’ (principles of change internal to living things), and natures, Aristotle argued, do not deliberate: ‘It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present [in nature] because we do not see an agent deliberating.’ These Platonic and Aristotelian arguments ran counter to those presented earlier by Democritus and later by Lucretius, both of whom were supporters of what is now often called metaphysical naturalism, or accidentalism: ‘Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.’

In the various neo-Hegelian schools – proposing a history of our species some consider to be at variance with Darwin, as well as with the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and with what is now called analytic philosophy — the point of departure is not so much formal logic and scientific fact but ‘identity.’ (In Hegel’s terminology: ‘objective spirit.’) Individual human consciousness, in the process of reaching for autonomy and freedom, has no choice but to deal with an obvious reality: the collective identities (such as the multiplicity of world views, ethnic, cultural and national identities) that divide the human race and set (and always have set) different groups in violent conflict with each other. Hegel conceived of the ‘totality’ of mutually antagonistic world-views and life-forms in history as being ‘goal-driven,’ that is, oriented towards an end-point in history. The ‘objective contradiction’ of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ would eventually ‘sublate’ into a form of life that leaves violent conflict behind. This goal-oriented, ‘teleological’ notion of the ‘historical process as a whole’ is present in a variety of 20th century authors, although its prominence declined drastically after the Second World War.

In contrast teleology and ‘grand narratives’ are eschewed in the postmodern attitude and teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary and harmful to those whose stories are erased. Against this, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that a narrative understanding of oneself, of one’s capacity as an independent reasoner, one’s dependence on others and on the social practices and traditions in which one participates, all tend towards an ultimate good of liberation. Social practices may themselves be understood as teleologically oriented to internal goods, for example practices of philosophical and scientific inquiry are teleologically ordered to the elaboration of a true understanding of their objects. MacIntyre’s book ‘After Virtue’ famously dismissed the naturalistic teleology of Aristotle’s ‘metaphysical biology,’ but he has cautiously moved from that book’s account of a sociological teleology toward an exploration of what remains valid in a more traditional teleological naturalism.

Businessmen commonly think in terms of purposeful action as in, for example, management by objectives. Teleological analysis of business ethics leads to consideration of the full range of stakeholders in any business decision, including the management, the staff, the customers, the shareholders, the country, humanity and the environment. Teleology provides a moral basis for the professional ethics of medicine, as doctors are generally concerned with outcomes and must therefore know the telos of a given treatment paradigm. The broad spectrum of consequentialist ethics, of which utilitarianism is likely the most well-known, focuses on the end result or consequences, with such maxims as utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill’s ‘the greatest good for the greatest number,’ or the maximum utility. Hence they are teleological in nature. This is in contrast with deontological ethics, such as Immanuel Kant’s the ‘Categorical Imperative,’ in which an end result or consequences are less important, or even irrelevant, but the action itself, the means or will, is the focus.

Using teleology as an explanation style, in particular within evolutionary biology, is controversial. Statements which imply that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something ‘in order to’ achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid. Usually, it is possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention. These issues have recently been discussed by John Reiss. He argues that evolutionary biology can be purged of such teleology by rejecting the analogy of natural selection as a watchmaker; arguments against this analogy have been promoted by writers such as Richard Dawkins. Some authors, like James Lennox, were more skeptical, and have argued that Darwin was a teleologist, while others like Michael Ghiselin described this as a myth promoted by misinterpretations of his discussions and emphasized the distinction between using teleological metaphors and being teleological.

Biologist philosopher Francisco Ayala has argued that all statements about processes can be trivially translated into teleological statements, and vice versa, but that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of. Karen Neander has argued that the modern concept of biological ‘function’ is dependent upon selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence without going through a process of selection has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analyzing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, any talk of functions must be posterior to natural selection and function cannot be defined in the manner advocated by Reiss and Dawkins.

Ernst Mayr states that ‘adaptedness… is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking.’ Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell writes that ‘the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements’ for the sake of saving space, but that this ‘should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection.’

Julian Bigelow, Arturo Rosenblueth, and Norbert Wiener have conceived of feedback mechanisms as lending a teleology to machinery. Wiener, a mathematician, coined the term ‘cybernetics’ to denote the study of ‘teleological mechanisms.’ Cybernetics is the study of the communication and control of regulatory feedback both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two. In the cybernetic classification presented in ‘Behavior, Purpose and Teleology,’ teleology is feedback controlled purpose. This classification system was criticized and the need for an external observability to the purposeful behavior was established to validate the behavior and goal-attainment. The purpose of observing and observed systems is respectively distinguished by the system’s subjective autonomy and objective control.

One Comment to “Teleology”

  1. I am a fan of teleology, in fact all my decisions and activity are based on teleology. I reject morality in favour of teleology.

    The scientists who reject teleology in organic life are blind. All actions and all the anatomical features of any organic life form is teleological. Everything humanity creates is teleological.

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