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

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