Tag Archives: purpose in nature

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. Continue reading

A teleological tale

As the new millennium began, I, bravely or naïvely, committed myself to this discredited branch of philosophy, officially submitting “teleological narratives” as my dissertation topic. Although I was working on a doctorate in English at City University New York  (CUNY) Graduate School, I needed a scientific advisor on my dissertation committee because teleology and biological self-organization are so entwined. Continue reading

Purpose, biosemiotics and the complexity sciences

Telos is otherwise known as final cause, one of four causes identified by Aristotle’s natural philosophy: Material cause describes how the physical properties of matter determine what a thing is and how it will react with other things. For example, an ivory ball will roll differently than a wooden ball, as the density and weight of the material determines how much resistance it has. Efficient cause describes how the agent (person, animal, or even a moving object like a billiard ball) acting on something determines what happens. For example, the pool player, the cue stick or ball hitting another ball at rest is the efficient cause of the latter’s moving. Formal cause describes how the “blueprint” or the natural laws of form determine what can be. Some forms are physically impossible; others are very probable. Experienced pool players have learned that certain types of moves can be expected to result in certain types of outcomes, and they may apply their knowledge of geometry to their game.  Final cause describes how the “end,” or the function something ultimately serves, determines what happens or how something develops. The ball was struck so that the pool player might win the game and further develop his abilities and reputation. Continue reading