Teleology revisited

Teleology is the study of the purposes of action, development and existence. Its practitioners believe nature is purposeful. An ancient and enduring form of inquiry that has been out-of-fashion among educated people for centuries, teleology’s slow, steady decline as a scientific discipline began in the 17th century with the birth of modern empiricism and continued to plummet apace with the rise of the Enlightenment, Darwinism, and quantum mechanics. Nature is not purposeful, it was said, and those who continued to think it was were primarily spiritualists, artists, or madmen, who credited the guidance of gods, muses, or fate.

Biologists—whose subject compels them to deal with questions about, for example, what organs are for—have to constantly remind themselves that “officially” functionality is just a side-effect of predictable material causal processes. As J. B. S. Haldane is said to have claimed, teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he may not be able to live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public. The serious and sensible scientists resolutely resist teleology and her meretricious allure. And so despite biology’s occasional flirtation, in general science measures its progress in terms of the distance it has put between itself and teleology.

I call myself a teleologist, and in doing so risk a certain amount of professional shame and disrepute. When I was deciding on a career as a literary theorist and philosopher of science and entering graduate school, if any of my peers talked of teleology at all, it was only to say how passé or stilted “teleological” narratives were, on par with calendar art or sermons. People assumed I was religious or Republican or simply had bad taste.

Many of those who would receive me—some of whom also called themselves teleologists—were very unwelcome bedfellows. They talked of Truth, Beauty and Goodness and asked me to supply them with a Theory that would defend their particular ideas of T, B & G. Teleology concerns form and function, which is not the same thing, quite, as beauty and goodness, certainly not the same thing as Beauty and Goodness. So I was ultimately unwelcome in that group too.

What I do share with all teleologists, authentic or so-called, is a deeply felt folk-sense of purposefulness in nature. It is clear to me that many processes and patterns in nature can’t be fully explained by Newton’s laws or by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. These are processes that are organized in ways that create, sustain and further that organization. I believe that purposeful events and actions occur without any guidance from the outside and without predetermination—not by divine plans, nor alien intelligence, nor supercomputer programs. These processes are self-organizing and inherently adaptive, which is the essence of what it is to be teleological.

Nothing is purposeful that is the puppet of some other force. To be purposeful is not to be a tool. Years ago, just starting to wonder seriously about these issues, I confronted the usual kinds of questions, What is life for? What is the purpose of life? Or, posed a bit differently, What is the meaning of life? as if it were a kind of allegory, and purposeful beings always served the purposes of someone or something else. I can’t remember when exactly I stopped thinking about purpose in this way, but I have, completely. Over the dozen or so years that I’ve been working out this problem, I have come to understand that purposes can only be defined in relation to the self in question. Your purposes, for instance, are always related to what sustains or furthers your values, what coheres with your personality, and, importantly, what helps you evolve or adapt.

The question of your having a “higher purpose” would pertain to the role that you have as a part of a larger social or ecological system. We all play those roles too, as organs not tools. And as such, we preserve our own autonomy. “Organ” comes form the Greek organon, meaning tool or instrument, a somewhat unfortunate etymology for an organ is different: it helps create and is created by the individual in which it exists. Tools don’t do that.

What we learn about our own purposeful behavior will help us understand how nature, society, or culture can be said to act purposefully too.

Theologians throughout history have made innumerable attempts, some valiant, to explain how people can have free will even if there is a God that determines everything in advance, a God who has a higher purpose under which we are bound, a God who has created us as (effectively non-“organic” in the sense of not co-creating) instruments of his divine Plan. It cannot be done. Theologians throughout history have tried to co-opt teleology for their own religions. It cannot be done. Teleology is not theology. Teleology comes closer to a transcendental way of animating nature and recognizing some kind of proto-intelligence and creativity in events themselves rather than attributing their organization to a Being in control of nature. I say, comes closer to because it does not go that far or quite in that direction. Teleology seeks naturalistic explanation for real, natural phenomena. Nature is, as we are, self-organizing.

A few examples: 1. Flocks of birds fly in formation and change direction simultaneously, even though there is no one leader in the flock nor any kind of instantaneous communication among the entire flock. 2. Many species appear to have been formed according to the same general ground plan: for example, many animals’ major organs have relatively similar distribution schemes, even though they do not share a common ancestor. 3. When food resources are scarce, free-roaming slime-mold cells (if you do any amount of reading in science you know that fruit flies and slime mold have a kind of celebrity status) will emit a chemical signal that attracts other cells. They aggregate, forming concentric rings and finally piling up to form stalks that eventually release spores in order to continue the species-individual.

Each of these examples involves a process that appears to be guided by a plan that anticipates the future. Yet, argue scientists, the individual birds, separate species, or free-roaming cells, are not intentionally acting as an organized group, variations on a theme, or altruistic stalk builders. Such phenomena, it has been argued for three centuries of science, merely appear goal-directed.

Instead, I wondered if these examples from nature help us re-imagine what goal-directed behavior actually is, in ourselves as well as in nature. I decided to pursue that thought. Against the good advice of many, I dedicated myself to teleology, a subject that had been so thoroughly discussed, debated and dismissed it seemed nothing more could possibly be said. But they were wrong, and I eventually found others like me who were beginning to reinvent one of the oldest ways of understanding the world and our roles in it.

–from my forthcoming book, The Biologist’s Mistress

11 thoughts on “Teleology revisited

  1. Jon Dreyer

    I like the “organic” notion of teleology but question the claim that “many processes and patterns in nature can’t be fully explained by Newton’s laws or by Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection.” The examples you give are all biological, hinting at evolutionary origin. Presumably flocking behavior, common organization of organs, and slime mold parties are all adaptive.

    Of course there is plenty of self-organizing in nature that is not biological, crystals are an obvious example. Also it’s not likely that life could evolve anywhere that doesn’t support self-organizing. But none of that argues for anything besides physics, evolution, and the fact that the only places where living things can possibly evolve to contemplate their existence are places that support the self-organizing chemistry necessary for the evolution of life.

  2. torialexander Post author

    Dear Jon,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I completely agree that all processes in nature are describable in terms of physics and evolution. And I’m sure you’ll agree that our notions of physical causality have been enlarged since Newton and natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution. I work with the complexity sciences, a controversial area still to be sure, but much less so than 20 years ago. Flocking behavior and slime mold organization are standard examples in the complexity sciences of emergent phenomena. The body plan is also a standard example of non-Darwinian constraints upon evolution much written about by Brian Goodwin and Walter Fontana. I especially like Robert Reid’s new book on this topic: Biological Emergences. Non-Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms are a hot topic these days in science.

    I know it’s hard to think of teleology without supposing some kind or a-causal or supernatural force is implied. That’s my big challenge. This post is just the first few paragraphs of a book I’m just finishing on 21st C teleology called Nature is a Work of Art, which is an intentionally controversial title since I don’t believe in an Artist, i.e. God. I argue that a naturalized teleology depends upon a notion of semiosis, which I define, drawing upon the Complexity Sciences and Biosemiotics, as the causal effectiveness of an emergent whole upon its parts, that is, the whole constrains the parts. Alicia Juarrero, Stanley Salthe, and Robert Ulanowicz have similar theses. If you’re interested in the full argument I have a condensed version of my main thesis in an article called “The Poetics of Purpose” available here

  3. G

    I disagree that the word “tool” is “unfortunate”. If you just grasp (forgive the pun) the vernacular of the word I think you will find it does indeed “help to create” and it could be argued it is also “created” by the individual it resides in. I know I have certainly taught my “tool” to behave better over the years, thus “creating it” into an ever more efficient giver of pleasure.

    Despite my Jockularity (is that even a word?) I really enjoyed your article. Extremely high-brow, yet so down to Earth too.
    Thanks for it.

  4. torialexander Post author

    Okay. I had not anticipated that pun. I would tell you to keep your mind on topic, but I’m a fan of punning. Later in the book (these posts excerpt a book that’s coming out soon) I have a section on punning and bi-polar poetics. Some of my favorite artists/writers are nutty punsters.

    For the record, we can say that society shapes and is shaped by its tools and etc back and forth, so at the level of technological/societal evolution tools can play an organic role.

  5. Troy Camplin

    I am sure you are aware of Bertalanffy’s definitions of teleology in his “General Systems Theory”, to which you seem to have indirectly refered. It seems to me that you could clarify your position by refering to his teleologies.

    I would also suggest that self-organizing systems and beauty are very deeply related to each other. That, at least, is the conclusion I have come to over the course of my own scholarly work on the two.

  6. torialexander Post author

    My ancestry actually starts with the German teleomechanists and transcendental morphologists/biologists in the early 19th century, skips many decades and picks up again with Turing and then Priogogine and the complexity scientists, many of whom, interestingly enough, seemed to have skipped over the General Systems Theory work too. I came to Bertanlanffy rather late in my education and found, as you point out, many similarities. General Systems Theory and the complexity sciences are either cousins, sharing distant ancestors, or an example of convergence, having independently come to similar conclusions. Many of the Complexity Scientists I worked with had a bias against General Systems Theory, which they viewed as a failed effort, and tried to disassociate themselves from it. Complexity scientists also try to disassociate themselves from teleology too. I agree with you, however, that all this work is related and Bertanlanffy is deeply interesting on the subject of self-organization and teleology.

    I looked at your website. Many similar interdisciplinary interests!

  7. Troy Camplin

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people who are in fact talking about the same things haven’t been talking to each other too much. I keep seeing the same ideas of self-organization, systems, networks, emergence, etc. recurring and reemerging, with nobody in the different fields seemingly aware of each other. Self-organization theorists seem unaware of Hayek’s and Polanyi’s work on spontaneous order. And nobody studing emergent properties seems to be aware of the emergentist psychological theory of Clare Graves or the emergentist theory of time of J.T. Fraser. So everyone is reinventing the wheel over and over in different fields.

    As for myself, I argue for an informational ontology in my book Diaphysics, so we are probably on the same page in relation to biosemiotics, though we can’t forget the other levels of complexity above and below the biological, either. It’s information all the way down — and up!

  8. torialexander Post author

    In your honor Troy I have added this to the preface of the book.

    Teleology is so common that you may not have been aware this type of research had a name. Oh that! you’ll exclaim when you’re done with this book, I know what that is; I just didn’t know it was called “teleology.” Teleology touches on a little bit of everything, and so sometimes it’s almost harder to say what it doesn’t cover than what it does. Virtually every discipline has been engaged with it at one point: religion, philosophy, evolutionary theory, biology, psychology, cosmology, physics, chemistry, literary theory and so on, maybe even dentistry, I wouldn’t be surprised. No sane person can be expected to be familiar with all or even most or even much of what has been written on teleology. I’m only about half crazy enough to have read a good portion of a few specific areas of study, and that’s already too much to put into this book, which I wanted to keep under a few days’ read. So in an effort to make this work accessible and interesting to a wide audience, I have not included lengthy summaries of current research on teleology and intentionality (please consult the bibliography for further reading). Instead, I have chosen to include only brief references to only those few scholars I have found useful in changing my thought. Those who have confirmed my thought tend to get less attention, which isn’t at all fair, since, had I gotten to them at an earlier stage, things might have been different. But in the interest of explaining teleology in a more or less personal narrative tone, I found it better to stick with my own idiosyncratic developmental trajectory. I tend to favor medieval philosophers over today’s analytic philosophers, pre-Darwinian biology over 20th century developmental systems biology, biosemiotics over teleosemantics, the complexity sciences over general systems theory, neuroscience over psychology, fiction over physics, and pragmatisim over deconstruction, for example. No doubt I omit many important voices. You may feel that one of my omissions indicates an appalling ignorance rather than an informed preference, and you will probably be right. It may be that I haven’t read your key works and authors, but the wonderful thing about teleology today is that many specialized fields—fields that haven’t interacted for decades—are simultaneously converging upon similar ideas about emergence, complexity, selfhood, and purpose. This may count as evidence that we are discovering something true. A language is self-organizing; some of its various speakers may have never heard of each other, and yet if we were to meet, we would understand each other just fine. It’s the most exciting time in teleology since Kant, and I’m glad to be active in my small but perfectly fluent sector.

  9. G

    I have read some excellent books recently of a decidedly odd nature, but weirdly enough they also deal with your topic. I highly recommend the philospher’s stone by Joseph Farrell. In fact most of his books are eye-opening. Scarily so.
    The Germans were way ahead in a lot of natural sciences in the early 20th century.


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