Teleology (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Teleology, from the Greek telos (purpose), is a term generally thought to have been coined by the German philosopher Christian Wolff in 1728. Teleology refers to the science of final causes. In Aristotle's philosophy, there were four sorts of causes, or principles for explaining the nature of things. One of these is the final cause, for the sake of which an object exists. Aristotle held that virtually all objects, especially organic objects, have a final cause. It is a principle inherent in them, which disposes them to realize a particular state, which can be seen as the purpose for their existence. It is closely related to the formal cause, which is the essential nature (the form) of an object. For many objects, the final cause simply is the fullest realization of the formal cause. Aristotle saw organisms as striving to realize their true natures as they grew and developed.
The final cause of an acorn, for example, is a fully grown oak tree. The acorn is naturally disposed to become an oak tree. That is the proper realization of its nature, the reason it exists. The idea of final causality applies most obviously to organisms. It has two forms. One might be called part-whole teleologyhe parts of an organism exist for the sake of the whole (the heart exists in order to pump blood around the body). The other might be called goal-oriented teleologyhe purpose of a seed or embryo is to grow into a particular organic form. Aristotle implied that all objects act for a purpose or end, so that even rocks have an inherent purpose for existence, even if it just to be a good solid rock. Aristotle did not appeal to a God for this idea, but saw final causality and formal causality as a principle inherent in all existent objects.
When medieval philosophers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam took over Aristotelian categories, they explicitly introduced a creator God as a being who gives all things their final causes, and that is itself the final cause of the entire universe, for the sake of which it exists. Thus, one of Thomas Aquinas's (c. 1225274) arguments for God is that, since all bodies tend to a goal, they must be directed to it by some being with awareness and intelligence, "and this we call God" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 2, 3). Aquinas includes the fact that bodies obey natural laws as a form of final causality. They do not act by accident, but obey the laws as if intended to do so, and this points to the fact that they are so intended.
A marked feature of post-sixteenth century science was its rejection of, or at least indifference to, any doctrine of final causes in nature. Laws of nature were seen as general principles of interaction between objects (perhaps ultimately between atoms), which have no purpose; they just happen to be (perhaps by some unknown mathematical necessity) the way they are. The last remnant of Aristotelian teleology was vitalism, the belief that at least organisms are actuated by some immaterial vital principle that explains their structure and development. Most biologists reject this notion as unnecessary mystification, and look for purely physical causes of organic structure and development.
The Design argument
In eighteenth-century Europe, a new form of design argument took shape that did not appeal to inherent final causes in things. Instead, it pointed to the way in which the parts of nature cooperate to produce apparently well-designed wholes. A general mechanism of nature is accepted, but that mechanism is seen as producing elegant and desirable states, conducive to the survival and flourishing of organisms, particularly human beings. Nature is a well-designed machine, and its ultimate purpose is the pleasure of conscious human beings. William Paley wrote A View of the Evidences of Christianity in 1794, and it became for many years the standard exposition of the design argument. It adduced a host of biological and natural facts to show that nature is an efficient process that realizes highly desirable ends, which shows that nature is designed and that a designer is therefore needed. This could be called the universal design argument, since it refers to the general structure of the universe and its laws. Paley also argued that there are many evidences of particular design in nature, from the fact that the eye is perfectly designed for vision to the fact that camels are specially constructed to store water in the desert.
David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779, was a devastating critique of such design arguments, and he is generally felt to have refuted Paley's views fifteen years before they appeared. Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), wrote that the design argument was naturally convincing to all, but it was not logically compelling. In particular, it does not show the necessity for an all-perfect creator. According to Kant, there is a definite appearance of design in nature, but there could be another explanation for it.
That other explanation was provided by Charles Darwin's theory of descent with modification, or natural selection, in the Origin of Species (1859). This theory, later broadened into universal Darwinism by a number of philosophers, posits that multiple replication and random mutation of organisms, together with ruthless selection by environment, naturally leads over many generations to just the sort of improvements or adaptations that look as if they have been designed, though in fact the mechanism of repeated mutation and natural selection is sufficient to produce that appearance.
Teleology and evolution
To many it seems that teleology has at last been extruded from natural science, and from any reasonable account of the general structure of the universe. Others, however, think this is not the case. In 1928, the Cambridge philosopher F. R. Tennant published his Philosophical Theology, in which he gave an extended argument for a teleological view of evolution. In opposition to the Darwinian, or neo-Darwinian, view that mutation is random and undirected, he argued that one can discern a direction in the evolutionary process towards an increase of consciousness, intelligence, and intentional action. Individual mutations are random, in the sense that they are not all directed toward the improvement of the species. But they have an overall propensity, in conjunction with the supportive nature of the environment, to lead to the development of intelligent organisms like human beings. That the environment supports such developments is not an accident, but suggests that the whole cosmic system, in its general evolutionary structure, is well adapted to the production of conscious life forms.
There is, according to Tennant, probably not a particular teleology whereby camels are specially designed to live in deserts. But there is a general teleology whereby organisms that live in deserts continue to produce genetic mutations, some of which will eventually lead to the existence of water-storing organisms like camels. Tennant admits that all this could logically happen by chance, given the existence of laws governing genetic mutation and environmental change. But is it not a puzzle that these laws are just what they need to be to produce organisms like camels and human beings? Darwin himself apparently felt there was a puzzle, but he never solved it.
There would be no puzzle if humans were considered to have no greater value than specks of dust. But if humans are seen as immensely complex integrated structures (and the brain is the most complex structure known in the universe) that value their own existences and may even be of unique intrinsic dignity and value, then there is a puzzle. An evolutionary teleological argument will only work on two conditionsf the evolutionary process is an efficient way of producing its putative goal, and if that goal is indeed of great desirability, perhaps just what an intelligent designer would want to produce.
Darwinians may argue that the process is inefficient or cruelhere are too many mistakes and blind alleys. And they may argue that humans are not of unique value, except, naturally enough, to themselves. Tennant responds that the "mistakes" are necessary parts of a process in which freedom, and therefore some degree of indeterminacy, is an essential part. And the value of human persons lies in their possession of moral responsibility and the ability to relate to one another and to the creator in love.
Is this a scientific argument? It seems not, for the biological facts are not in dispute. It is an argument about how one evaluates organic existence and human personhood. One's attitude toward teleology depends upon evaluative judgments about whether the evolutionary process is "worth it," and about whether humans have a special dignity and moral status.
Belief in God is not necessary to a teleological viewhat is, a view that there is a direction in the evolutionary process towards states of unique and unexpected value. One could be a humanist or a Marxist and hold such a teleological view. Many Marxists, for instance, and probably Karl Marx (1818883) himself, saw nature as progressively realizing its own inherent drive towards a free and creative society of persons, without the existence of any "external" or omniscient intelligence. If there were to be such an intelligence, it would be the final consequence of the cosmic process, not its precondition.
Among Christian thinkers, the paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881955) has restated a Christian teleological view that owes much to both Darwin and Marx. According to Teilhard, the universe as a whole moves towards greater complexity and higher levels of consciousness. The emergence of human consciousness was a saltation in the process, by which the universe (or parts of it) became capable of conscious self-direction for the first time, so far as we know. The process will continue in the development on Earth of a noosphere, in which all individual consciousnesses become progressively unified. The final culmination will be the Omega Point, when the whole material universe will be unified in the life of one omniscient and wholly self-directing spirit. However, Teilhard posits that this Omega Point, being beyond historical time, has in fact always existed as the causal basis of the whole historical process. It is, in fact, God, which, though timelessly complete, realizes itself progressively in cosmic time.
This grand cosmic vision takes evolutionary theory back to its philosophical origins in the work of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770831), for whom evolution was a gradual self-realization of absolute spirit. This form of evolutionary theory is cosmically optimistic, and committed to a teleological view of the universe as directed towards its final consummation, and perhaps transformation, in the spiritual reality of God. For many, however, this is both too optimistic and too grandiose a vision for the available evidence, which seems to them much more ambiguous in its indications of continued improvement towards a final goal. Just as the dinosaurs were wiped out, so too all life on Earth could be wiped out by some catastrophe, which would eliminate any possibility of purpose in evolution.
Teilhard considered, however, that the cosmic purpose could be completed beyond this physical space-time, in a new environment created by God. So one can hold that there is a purpose in evolutiono produce conscious beings capable of relating to God. But the real final goal is eschatological; it lies in the fulfillment of persons in God beyond the present space-time. This view is clearly not open to empirical testing, though questions of whether persons can survive the death of their physical bodies are relevant to its plausibility.
Teleology in modern thought
Within modern science, there are those, like Michael Behe and William Dembski, who argue that there is still a need to appeal to teleology. They hold that small incremental mutations cannot account for the existence of organs like the eye, which need to exist as a whole in order to function at all. The so-called Intelligent Design argument is about the adequacy of Darwinian explanations to account for all features of organic life.
More widespread, however, are arguments of cosmologists like Paul Davies that the amount of "fine-tuning" of physical constants and laws that is required to produce conscious life in a physical universe is much too great to be due to chance. Some physicists are so impressed by the complex interrelation of physical laws needed to produce life that they think some sort of intelligence must underlie the universe. For most, this intelligence is not a God like that of orthodox religion. It is more like a vast intelligence that is not morally concerned with the lives and happiness of organisms.
Other physicists, like Steven Weinberg, think the hypothesis of an intelligence is superfluous. They would like to see the derivation of the laws of this universe as necessarily following from some impersonal and invariant superset of laws. The supposition that such a superset is necessarily there, however, seems to posit a sort of necessity that science cannot establish. To the religious believer, that necessity might well lie in the intentions of a creator God, who has an ultimate purpose in creating it.
On a less speculative level, there remains the important question, harking back to Aristotle, of whether some sort of teleological, purposive explanation is needed for a complete account of observed reality. In modern science, nomological explanation (in terms of general laws, without reference to purpose) is firmly established as a fruitful explanatory principle. But it is not at all clear whether it is adequate for explaining the facts of human consciousness and social life. Many would argue that explanation in terms of purpose or intention is needed to explain why humans act as they do. After all, they often do things because they intend to. They do seem to have purposes. Others, however, hope to discover nomological forms of explanation that will cover all these factorsrobably by investigating sorts of brain activity. The question remains: Is there a teleology, at least in human affairs, that does not reduce to nomological explanation?
Again, this question does not necessarily involve questions of religious belief. But if teleological explanation were found to be necessary for parts of the universe, this might keep open the genuine question of whether the universe has a purpose or goal. In that case, it will be a compelling thought to many that there must be a God, something like a cosmic mind by which such a purpose could be formulated and implemented.
The question of whether teleology is a basic feature of the universe is unresolved. It looks as if such ultimate "scientific" questions go beyond the realms of verifiable fact to questions of the ultimate nature of reality, questions traditionally regarded as philosophical in nature. Consideration of scientific facts is relevant to such questions, but in the end the interpretation of the facts seems to depend on evaluations and on basic attitudes to a materialistic philosophy, both of which go beyond the scientific evidence.
See also ARISTOTLE; CAUSATION; CHRISTIANITY, HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION; DARWIN, CHARLES; DESIGN ARGUMENT; ESCHATOLOGY; FREEDOM; GOD; HUME, DAVID; INTELLIGENT DESIGN; ISLAM, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND RELIGION; JUDAISM, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND RELIGION; KANT, IMMANUEL; TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, PIERRE; THOMAS AQUINAS
Davies, Paul. The Mind of God. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1799). In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and the Natural History of Religion, ed. J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (1781), trans. Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Paley, William. A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794).
Polkinghorne, John. Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding. London: SPCK, 1988.
Taylor, Richard. Action and Purpose. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall. New York: Harper, 1959.
Tennant, F. R. Philosophical Theology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1928.
Ward, Keith. God, Chance, and Necessity. Oxford: Oneworld Press, 1996.
Ward, Keith. God, Faith and the New Millennium. Oxford: Oneworld Press, 1998.