A Teleological World

Creation of Adam ( )

One classic dispute in philosophy can be crudely summed up by two competing bumper-sticker slogans. One is “everything happens for a reason.” The other is “stuff happens.” The first slogan expresses a version of the teleological view—the idea that the world is driven by purpose. The second expresses the non-teleological view—the world is not driven by purpose. It might be a deterministic world or a random world, but what occurs just happens.

Not surprisingly, there are many different theories that fall under the teleological banner. The sort most people tend to think of involves a theological aspect—a divine being creates and perhaps directs the world. Creationism presents a “pop” version of teleology while Aquinas presents a rather more sophisticated account. However, there are versions that are non-theological. For example, Thales wrote of the world being “full of gods”, but did not seem to be speaking of divine entities. As another example, Aristotle believed in a teleological world in which everything has a purpose.

The rise of what is regarded as modern science during the renaissance and enlightenment saw a corresponding fall in teleological accounts, although thinkers such as Newton and Descartes fully embraced and defended theological teleology. In the sciences, the dominance of Darwinism seemed to spell the doom of teleology. Interestingly, though, certain forms of teleology seem to be sneaking back in.

One area of the world that seems clearly teleological is that occupied by living creatures. While some thinkers have the goal of denying such teleology, creatures like us seem to be theological. That is, we act from purposes in order to achieve goals. Even the least of living creatures, such as bacteria, are presented as having purposes—though this might be more metaphor than reality.

Rather interestingly, even plants seem to operate in purposeful ways and engage in what some scientists characterize as communication. Even more interesting, entire forests seem to be interlocked into communication networks and this seems to indicate something that would count as teleological. This sort of communication can, of course, be dismissed as mere mechanical and chemical processes. The same can also be said of us—and some have argued just that.

It is quite reasonable to be skeptical of claims that link the behavior of plants to claims about teleology. After all, the idea of forests in linked communication and plants acting with purpose seems like something out of fantasy, hippie dreams, or science fiction. That said, there is some solid research that supports the claim that plants communicate and engage in what seems to be purposeful behavior.

Even if it is conceded that living things are purpose driven and thus there is some teleology in the universe, there is still the matter of whether or not teleology is broader. While theists embrace the idea of a God created and directed world, those who are not believers reject this and contend that the appearance of design is just that—appearance and not reality.

One reason that teleology often gets rejected (sometimes with a disdainful sneer) is that it is usually presented in crude theological terms, such as young earth creationism. It is easy enough to laugh off a teleological view when those making it claim that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Also, there is a strong anti-religious tendency among some thinkers that causes an automatic dismissal of anything theological. Given that supernatural explanations do tend to be rather suspicious, this is hardly surprising. However, bashing such easy prey does not defeat the sophisticated forms of non-supernatural teleology.

The stock argument for teleology is, of course, that the best explanation for the consistent operation of the world and the apparent design of its components is in terms of purposes or ends. The main counter is, of course, that the consistency and apparent design can be explained entirely without reference to ends or purposes. To use the standard example, there is no need to postulate that living creatures are the result of a purpose or end because they are what they are because of chance and natural selection. When someone has the temerity to suggest that natural selection seems to smuggle in teleology, the usual reply is to deny that and to assure the critic that there is no teleology in it at all. Those who buy natural selection as being devoid of teleology accept this and often consider the critics to be misguided fools who are, no doubt, just trying to smuggle God back in. Those who think that natural selection still smuggles in teleology tend to think their opponents are in the grips of an ideology and unwilling to consider the matter properly.

Natural selection is also extended, in a way, beyond living creatures. When those who accept teleology point to the way the non-living universe works as evidence of purpose, the critics contend that the apparent purpose is an illusion. The planets and galaxies are as they are by chance (or determinism) and not from purpose. If they were not as they are, we would not be here to be considering the matter—so what seems like a purposeful universe is just a matter of luck (that is, chance).

It is, of course, tempting to extend the teleology of living creatures to the non-living parts of the universe. If it is accepted that we act with purpose and that even plants do so, then it becomes somewhat easier to consider that complicated non-living systems might also operate with a purpose, goal or end. Interestingly enough, being a materialist makes this transition even easier. After all, if humans, animals and plants are purely mechanical systems that operate with a purpose, then the idea that other purely mechanical systems operate with a purpose would make sense. This is not so say that stars are intelligent or that the universe is a being, of course.

There are those who deny that humans and animals operate with purpose and assert that we simply operate in accord with the laws of nature (whatever that means). Hobbes, for example, took this view. On this sort of view humans and the physical world are basically the same: purposeless mechanical systems. On this view, there is no teleology anywhere. Stuff just happens.


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  1. “In the sciences, the dominance of Darwinism seemed to spell the doom of teleology.”

    There are some scholarly articles that reject this notion. A example is: Darwin was a teleologist by James G. Lennox.

  2. Teleology is very useful for the religious, but it produces some awful religion. For example, if a person develops an illness, the illness must have some divine purpose, and that is either to test the person, or punish them for sin.

    The assumption of a teleos leads people to create religions in the first place. And Melvin Lerner’s Just-World hypothesis is an example of how a religion with punitive sanctions for the unlucky, can be constructed without even the resort to a creating a deity.

    What’s the purpose of purpose?

  3. Dennis Sceviour,

    True-as you note, some people do argue that Darwin was a teleologist and that natural selection is teleological.

  4. JMRC,

    Interestingly, bacterial, viral and parasitic illness can be explained in terms of purposes. The purposes of the bacteria, virus or parasite. It is just that when people think the purpose is in the realm of the supernatural that we get bad religion.

  5. Teleological purpose, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It seems self-evident that, without an observer, there can be no purpose. But despite the advent of humans as observers, a status we assume for ourselves as self-aware agents, the world evidently moves on regardless. We are into the territory of the sound of trees falling in the woods. This is the quasi-logical route that requires a god who is always keeping an eye on things, in his/her creation, and providing purpose.

    One notion is that it is the conceit that we have free will leads to our belief that our actions have purpose. Such purposes are then offered to account for our free will-induced actions and rovide coherence. But if, as has been more widely argued recently, free will is an illusion then so are our purposes. If we are the only observers, then there are no purposes.

    The sense of purpose in events is an integral part of our making sense by creating a narrative. Cause and effect alone are not seen to be a sufficient explanation for ‘what happens’. We crave purpose in order to validate ourselves and to prop-up the compelling fantasy of our status as initiators of actions made in order to achieve our purposes.

    Happy New Year!

  6. I have a rule of thumb:

    “The world is more than we can conceive it to be”.

    Having taken that on board as a metaphysical principle, it trumps all other metaphysical questions, such as whether causality actually exists, or purpose…

    These then become merely approximate theories whose sole justification is that they give useful results when applied to experiential data.

    It’s possible to show that if you take causality to be an absolute principle in a linear time space universe, then there needs to be either an infinite series of cause/effect statements, or at some point a Prime Cause that ‘just is what it is’.

    That is, God or a Big Bang, are implicit in the statement that ‘time exists, and causality is the reason for all phenomena’.

    Which is why God and Science coexist in the human concept-space.

    Purpose implies an abstract depiction of some goal, and actions geared towards achieving it – or avoiding it. As such it has approximate meaning and utility when applied to homo sapiens as a conceptual being: less so when applied to an amoeba.

    Ultimately all successful species have a single ‘purpose’, and that is survival.

    If you can call that a purpose. They have evolved to survive and that’s that.

    The problem with all this overblown theorising is that people want definite answers to fuzzy questions expressed in fuzzy language that don’t have clear cut answers.

    The other rule of thumb is Korzybski: “the map is not the territory”.

    What is, is what is, but it’s not necessarily anything like the concepts of it we hold in our minds, and treat as real.

    I have looked hard to find (but not found) these principles clearly expressed – namely that knowledge consists of metaphysical suppositions – inductive logic if you like – that posit noumenous entities behind the appearance of phenomenal reality, and then all the issues that humans argue over are no more than the explication of the ‘implicit implications’ (by deductive logic) of these noumenous entities.

    IF entities, time and causality are true properties of the world as opposed to merely convenient ways of achieving a human mind relationship with it,

    THEN of course at some level there is some supreme force or set of forces that represent a Prime Cause,

    AND IF that entity or group of entities so necessarily incorporated in the model has sentience,

    THEN we have the possibility of purpose as well.

    Purpose is an emergent property of – an explication of an implication – of free will and sentience.

    Note that it also implies a sense of value judgement as well. God may have said ‘let there be light;’ but unless he also ‘Saw that it was Good’, he might just as easily have said ‘scrub that: Not sure I really like light at all’, and saved us all a lot of trouble.

    My point being that purpose is an implicit property of other properties – free will, sentience and some sense of value judgement.

    And whether it features in your world view will depend on who strongly those other qualities feature in it.

    And the final point being that a worldview is not the world.

    Idealism (the world is all in the mind) is a necessary antidote to Realism (the world is precisely as it appears to us to be) but neither are satisfactory in the limit.

    The Third Way is hinted at by Korzybski and others: the world is what it is, and our conceptions of it are not necessarily even approximately correct, but they do represent the best attempt we have to algorithmically compress experience into a worldview that we are capable of handling, that has utility.

    Purpose is a tool in the language store, that has sufficient meaning to be useful in the limited context of human affairs. WE extend it to an absolute principle at our peril.

  7. Dr. Caffeine,

    Can’t we have purpose even without free will?

    I’m thirsty and I get a glass of water. My purpose is to satisfy my thirst. That has nothing to do with free will.

  8. Teleological Physiology?

    I thought that a more detailed exposition that exemplifies teleological thinking in my own scientific discipline might be informative. A widespread, unfortunate feature in medical education is the tendency to invoke teleological rather than physiological ‘explanations’. The former means assuming a process is explained in terms of the ‘result’ or the ‘final outcome’ it produces, whereas the latter provides the actual ‘where, what, how’ of body function (and dysfunction). I hope that this rather detailed exposition helps the reader to appreciate how the refinements of response and reflex, often as orchestrated by the autonomic branch of the nervous system, can give a convincing impression of being ‘need’ driven. The teleological type of ‘explanation’ is a naïve one; it often does look compellingly as if the organs and tissues ‘know’ what to do and ‘try’ to do it. But, again, the outcomes that give the appearance of resolving ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ are merely the consequence of the operating characteristics of the system as a whole. In modern terms, these functional sequelia can be described as an emergent property of a complex system. It is akin to consciousness itself that many of us believe is merely (albeit still amazingly) the outcome of cerebral function rather than some stand-alone entity in itself. Nevertheless, it is easy for any one of us to slip into using the ‘needs, wants’ phrases as a kind of shorthand, so be on your guard for it.

    The sorts of phrase that litter over simplistic texts, as well as naïve student exam answers, are: ‘the heart beats faster because it needs to increase cardiac output’, ‘the body tries to keep blood pressure constant’, ‘more blood reaches the tissues because they need more oxygen’ and so forth. What is implied here is that the needs and wants of the body are – in some mystical way – the very cause of the responses observed. Since the 17th Century at least, we are no longer vitalists (surely not?). However, we do have ever–better and more comprehensive physiological explanations that are formed in terms of sequences of cause and effect involving known biological processes. In fact, the ‘needs’, as mentioned, actually tend to be the result, or outcome, of what goes on in the body (blood pressure is maintained, tissues receive greater blood flow) rather than a first cause or ‘purpose’. Teachers of physiology will hope their students can recognise that teleology is really not adequate as an explanation at all.

    Note that physiological-clinical scenarios such as what happens during a serious haemorrhage, extreme oxygen deprivation, extreme cooling or heating, explain what it happening, which body systems are involved, what causes what to happen. There is actually little use in resorting the ‘needs to’, ‘wants to’, ‘tries to’ phrases since they contain no information about the physiology involved i.e. mechanisms, causes or effects. In an important sense, the teleological ‘explanations’ are also positively misleading in most cases; the physiological control systems often do not detect, or respond to, the triggers that the teleological ‘explanation’ might lead one to expect. Let’s follow on example in some detail. A simple case is seen when the rate of blood perfusion of tissues initially becomes inadequate to meets the metabolic ‘demands’ (e.g. in exercising muscles during sustained, moderate to strenuous activity). Closer inspection reveals that there is no critical chemical information fed back from the exercising to the central nervous system to enable ‘need-driven’ control the heart, lungs or blood vessels. Whatever blood returns from the tissues in the veins, the composition of arterial blood is (generally) maintained as a result of lung and kidney function (principally). Furthermore, it is essentially only arterial blood chemistry that is sensed by peripheral and central chemoreceptors. The heart and lungs, therefore, cannot ‘know’ what is ‘needed’ or ‘wanted’ by the tissues. What is observed is that cardiac output increases, i.e. overall blood flow increases, and most of the ‘extra’ output goes to the exercising tissues themselves. How does that come about? The reason the CVS responds as it does is that vascular resistance falls selectively in active tissues. Various processes triggered locally by the changed chemistry within the oxygen-deficient tissues provoke relaxation of the very smallest ‘arteries’ (the arterioles) and this leads to greater capillary blood flow downstream of the now-enlarged ‘resistance’ vessels. The enlargement of arterioles means that resistance (to blood flow) in that region is reduced and that, in turn, results in a fall (large or small) in average arterial blood pressure. (It’s just like the effect found in many houses when running water from a tap in the kitchen whilst Dad is in the shower upstairs). It is any fall in arterial pressure that is detected. This sensory information feeds to the autonomic and respiratory control centres in the brainstem (the medulla oblongata). The result of the ensuing sympathetic nerve activation is that average arterial pressure is restored (by the various mechanisms invoked). Meanwhile, increased respiration rates will compensate any arterial changes in oxygen, carbon dioxide and so on.

    So, as far as the heart, the lungs and most blood vessels are concerned, you can see that they have no specific information about whether they are responding to haemorrhage or to simple exercise, whether the whole body is involved or just the arms or just one leg or one muscle. In that sense, no information about ‘needs’, nor a scenario whereby the heart ‘tries to’ do anything specific, emerges here. However, the strength of the autonomic reflexes invoked, as well as subtle features of their precise form, will tend to match the magnitude and detailed features of the particular physiological challenge. This is coded in the scale of changes in average arterial blood pressure, circulating volume, core temperature, arterial blood chemistry, proprioceptive feedback, conscious inputs, motor activity, emotion etc. that are involved.

    The homeostatic process in many animals, especially the birds and mammals (including us), has evolved in complexity and subtlety in such a way that the features of the system ‘ensure’ (meaning ‘result in’) the body’s tissues being supplied according to their ‘needs’ but without that ‘need’ actually being monitored. (Natural selection defines what systems survive to reproduce and are thus – in evolutionary terms – ‘successful’.) This holds in the face of multiple physiological challenges, provided the key features of average arterial blood pressure and arterial blood chemistry are maintained ‘normal’ by the responses triggered. Of course, there are important additional, generalised and specific responses that are non–local; in exercise or haemorrhage for example, circulating catecholamines will be released and trigger responses e.g. in the liver, kidney and CNS in various ways. Other hormonal and neural responses will raise or lower the rate of supporting physiological mechanisms. Furthermore, there is an increasing recognition by researchers that many of our autonomic responses appear to be ‘learned’, or at least ‘trained’; we seem able to judge the severity of a challenge such as a meal or a given exercise and respond with a ‘suitable’ scale of physiological changes. Part of that is pre-emptive; your cardiac output and breathing rate will generally rise to ‘match’ the physiological demands anticipated for the staircase you are about to climb, just before you actually start. This means that experience and learning seem able to refine the autonomic reflexes; generally, a smooth accommodation by physiological systems is ensured as we routinely change our physical activity levels, switch from fasting to digestion/absorption etc. Similar learned behaviour applies to proprioceptive information so that body movement, limb placement, load-lifting etc. is usually unconsciously, but accurately, ‘judged’ to meet the task. Increasingly, this ‘autonomic learning’ is seen to be an important element contributing, for example, to the health benefits offered by aerobic fitness and appetite control.

  9. 1 – There’s no clear evidence of and fundamental, basic, universal purposeful design in the universe – no evidence of teleology.

    2 – Biology, evolution, neuroscience, physics, cosmology, are all making the non-telological perspective the most explanatory one: particles, elements, chemistry, biology … it’s an evolved increase in complexity with nothing to suggest anything else (magic, souls, minds) are added anywhere.

    With that in mind, ‘teleology’ becomes a term to describe a broad class of dynamic behaviours performed by complex clumps of otherwise inanimate non-teleological matter.

    The history of human knowledge suggests that our earlier inability to see all this from the convenient perspective of modern science caused early people, and later theologians and philosophers to posit the existence of non-material minds, souls, gods (as well as a host of other imaginary teleological entities). From that grew the great teleological illusion.

    So, teleology isn’t some purposeful agency magic, but rather the behaviour of complex systems, whereby their localised internal behaviour builds goals and purpose, with no higher goals of purpose for building those goals or purpose.

    If we ask “What are my goals, and what purpose do I have?” we can come up with answers about our personal lives, from the mundane (to have fun) to the more serious (to earn a salary in order to survive) to the more profound (to understand the universe, to do some good for my fellow humans). But try asking, what goal is served by me having goals? Or, what is the purpose of me having a purpose? Theists could ask what is God’s purpose for having the purpose of giving me a purpose? It all becomes rather incomplete.

    Whereas, if there is no purpose, and our personal goal seeking and purposefulness is a merely an outcome of how complex systems like us behave, then the explanation is consistent and complete, within the naturalistic perspective.

    That still leaves plenty of unanswered questions about why this might be the case, why there is something rather than nothing – but no need to presume some magical teleology to kick it all off.

  10. Dennis Sceviour,
    Thank you for the link to the James G. Lennox paper.

    “If a variation functions, in a particular environment, in a way that increases its relative frequency in subsequent generations, that variation is selectively favored because of that function.”
    “The concept of selection permits the extension of the teleology of domestic breeding into the natural domain, without the need of conscious design. As in domestic selection, the good served by a variation continues to be causally relevant to its increasing frequency, or continued presence, in a population – but the causal mechanism, and the locus of goodness, shifts.”

    In my opinion, there’s a lot of mischief there, centered on how we use words like because and causally. I assume that cause precedes effect, but Lennox implies that this isn’t necessary. I disagree. Adaptation can only be seen in retrospect. (I know there’s a better way to say what I mean, but I can’t come up with it!) It’s difficult to avoid teleological language when discussing biological evolution. I find myself saying that one or another attribute evolved in response to one or another ecological feature. But, of course, that’s not what I mean.

  11. Ken Pidcock,

    I think our use of teleological language is a consequence of our historic attribution of primary importance to the ‘mind’; and that teleological perspective may be an evolutionary convenience for a brain that cannot detect the detail of its own operation.

    While those not committed to teleological stories can see through the use of teleological language as metaphor, those that are committed to teleological stories (e.g. theological myths, panpsychism) look at its use in science and continue to think there is a teleology behind everything, and misunderstand or cannot grasp or are dismissive of the non-teleological view. It sometimes helps to explicitly use non-teleological language, but it is stilted and unnatural and difficult to keep up, particularly in popular texts.

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Ken Pidcock January 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm
    “I assume that cause precedes effect, but Lennox implies that this isn’t necessary.”

    Lennox would be correct here if he implied that this is not necessary. Darwin used a theory of reciprocity; that is, cause creates effects that create causes, etc. Dividing cause and effect into a linear duality is useful as a simplification for understanding, but it is not exactly correct. There are too many exceptions in nature to make the linearity consistent for a theory of adaptation.

  13. It could be argued that the gestating Earth has somehow managed to ‘program’ its ‘nanobots’ to build a rudimentary nervous system in a similar manner to that of a fetus ‘programming’ its cells to do the same. Whether this constitutes teleology is debatable –
    this post is primarily an attempt to reinforce these early, tentative neural pathways. 💡

    That which is below is like that which is above &
    that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
    And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one:
    so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.

    ~ From Newton’s translation of The Emerald Tablet.

  14. Ian James,

    It could be posited, hypothesised, asserted. But I don’t think it could be argued, without trivially building an argument on premises that were posited, hypothesised, asserted. This is the problem religion suffers from: asserted premises to arguments (William Lane Craig), or simply asserted conclusions (faith).

    Since the only indicator of teleology is first humans, and then what we infer is going on in other animals, and since in all other respects everything seems to be inanimate matter, animated by the dynamics of an unfolding universe, then why add teleology at all? It seems far simpler to infer that there is no grand teleology anywhere, because we can’t see it, and also to infer that what we describe as teleology in us is merely an artefactual behaviour of complex systems.

  15. Ian James

    Yes, Ron Murphy is right – “why add teleology at all?”. It’s an example of Occam’s Razor at work. We have found that we have no need to ‘posit, hypothesise, assert’ the notion of purpose to develop and sustain the present coherent understanding of how things are. If and when we actually need one more angel on the head of the philosophical pin, the anthropomorphising notion of purpose and the rest of the teleological baggage could get a look in. So far things are looking good for the power of regular Occam Close Shaves serving our conceptual frameworking very well.

  16. While it smacks of pantheism, the entire universe could be a conscious being. While this seems like madness, we are supposed to be conscious matter. So, it would just be a matter of scale. While it might also seem mad to speak of something like a conscious or purposeful planet, that also seems consistent with the idea of purposeful and conscious matter.

    Naturally, I am not going to come out and claim that the earth thinks. 🙂

  17. Mike,

    We have good reason to label these lumps of complex matter we call brains as being ‘conscious’. Rather than think that consciousness is something real, and we are just one example of it, think instead that this is what complex matter arranged like this does, and we label it ‘conscious’. They are quite different perspectives.

    From one perspective, we go around anticipating consciousness anywhere and everywhere without any supportive evidence. From the other we look for complex systems and see if they exhibit the behaviour that we think sufficient to be labelled conscious.

    Note that we could do the same with the term ‘life’. We could presume ‘life’ is some special stuff, and wonder if rocks, stars, the universe, anything and everything, are alive. Or, we could look at the complex stuff we label as ‘alive’ and look for other complex stuff and ask if it meets the criteria for being labelled ‘alive’.

    To me, one method seems more theological and the other more scientific, taxonomic even. I think this is also a way to classify philosophers in the debate over the usefulness of philosophy. Those philosophers that presume some property, substance, trait, whatever, might be anywhere and everywhere are more in the theology and woo camp. Those philosophers that want to see more evidence and argument before committing to a claim are more in the science camp.

    Note that I’m not opposed to the contemplation of philosophical extremes. I’m quite happy to wonder if the universe is conscious in some sense. The problem is going from that musing to taking it seriously without any evidence to support it. For example, the whole of the human brain of billions of connections can take part in activity that can be coordinated over milliseconds to seconds. But the speed of light seems to be a barrier in any complex interaction between large scale elements of the universe (if, for example, we imagined the filaments of large scale models of the universe resembled neurons). All the evidence we have suggests consciousness only comes about in very complex small scale systems like brains. If the universe is conscious then we might wonder if the limits on its conscious activity are such that it has had less than one useful thought since its emergence.

  18. Doris Wrench Eisler

    That human beings and other entities have or find purpose(s) doesn’t necessarily imply that everything is divinely ordained. The existence of god doesn’t imply one end or purpose, necessarily, although an all-powerful and very meddlesome god may do, by definition. No one understands natural selection entirely, and Darwin admitted freely he did not. The explanation that if things were not as they are we wouldn’t be here to (attempt to) explain them, doesn’t explain why they are as they are.

    It is possible that the universe, wherever it comes from, created God or principles by which life must live in order to survive and develop its various forms – or even come into being. We see as much cooperation in nature as competition. And even though power informs and even often defines morality, human beings are generally in accord with ideas of justice and morality that transcend ideas of particle cultures on the subject once they are exposed to them – or eventually. The fact we are amenable to noble ideas of universal justice and mercy is some evidence of universal moral laws: even hardened soldiers often become victims of their own state-sanctioned cruelty and bad behaviour (behaviour they would not want to be subject to) towards others.

    In one part of this essay mechanical systems are said to be purposeful, and at the end they are said to be purposeless. Clocks certainly have a purpose, but no free will. If we operate in accord with laws, Hobbes view, then surely we have some kind of predetermined purpose. What is in question is the existence of free will. And there are so many apples and grenades in that issue as to make a dog chasing its own tail seem eminently reasonable.

  19. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: Doris Wrench Eisler, January 3, 2015 at 7:52 pm
    “The fact we are amenable to noble ideas of universal justice and mercy is some evidence of universal moral laws”

    You should run for political office.

  20. re Doris Wrench Eisler
    “No one understands natural selection entirely, and Darwin admitted freely he did not. The explanation that if things were not as they are we wouldn’t be here to (attempt to) explain them, doesn’t explain why they are as they are.”

    You’ve made the slip of seeking a answer to a ‘why’ question. Such questions (when cast in the way you have) presume that the answer will necessarily be couched in terms of ‘purpose’. The ‘reason why?’ reflects a particular frame of thinking – and a particular use of the word ‘reason’.

    The deal with Natural Selection is that it describes what happens and what has happened and that’s all. But important is the extra ingredient in Darwin’s ‘great idea’. The shock comes when one appreciates that the ‘what’ of ‘what has happened’ is all there is to know about the situation. The blindness or ‘purposelessness’ of natural selection is the central point. The outcome, the wonders of the living world, certainly look like ‘selection’ has been deployed – a term that epitomises ‘purpose’. In many ways it is has been a problem that the phrase ‘natural selection’ is used at all. The ‘survival of the fittest’ helps us no further; it is the seeming tautology that that which survives is, by definition, the ‘fittest’ (or certainly the least unfit).

    Thus, evolutionary theory’s profound insight satisfactorily provides an full account for the phrase Mike put it in his closing line: ‘stuff happens’. Richard Feynman expounds this insight into scientific explanation brilliantly in his little book Quantum Electrodynamics; physics (in his case) is just the complete description of what happens – there is no further ‘explanation’ that assumes or requires purpose.

    So your point about explaining ‘why things are as they are’ is actually pretty much answered. That the Goldilocks circumstances have happened is self-evident; it is merely reporting that we are here and we’re able to ask the questions. That’s simply the stuff that happened – no ‘why’ or ‘wherefore’ required.

  21. Doris,

    “No one understands natural selection entirely, …”

    I think we understand it better than we understand any God, if the term ‘understand’ is to have any utility. If it isn’t, then sure, we can understand our gods as much as we are prepared to invent and define them; and we can even define ineffability as an explanation for the bits we don’t understand or which inconveniently conflict with more mundane observations of the world. God is a God-of-the-gaps by its very nature.

    “The explanation that if things were not as they are we wouldn’t be here to (attempt to) explain them, doesn’t explain why they are as they are.”

    That point isn’t meant to explain why things are as they ar. It is intended to illustrate that that any (typically theistic) assertion that a specific prior cause (typically God) is necessary otherwise we wouldn’t be here, or that because we are here the universe must be fine tuned for us, do not provide satisfactory explanations for our being here. It is pointing out that we are here, and that if we presuppose causality applies, then we are caused to be here, but warns against inferring anything particular about that cause from the fact of us being caused to be here.

    A similar example of over-inference is this, “The fact we are amenable to noble ideas of universal justice and mercy is some evidence of universal moral law” This is potentially an example of inferring something more specific from an outcome than is warranted (depending on what you meant by it).

    If you mean simply that the universal nature of justice implies only that this ‘universal law’ is a label to describe the aggregate of human feelings with regard to justice, then that’s a fair inference. But this simplistic ‘universality’ is a bit like saying, “Here are a set of objects: some red, some pink, some maroon. They have a universal tendency to being red. They are red-ish.” It’s an inference from observation of a set to a property of that set. It’s an empirical observation.

    On the other hand, if you mean that there is some universal law, in the very nature of the universe, that causes species like ours, and some others, to feel somewhat the same way about justice, then that would be an inference too far. It’s an unjustified metaphysical inference. That’s an inference about unrelated super-sets from the particulars of a single sub-set (and on earth we have to accept that the evolutionary origins of all species will result in some common traits and behaviours – life on earth may be varied, but to varying degrees we have common traits). It’s a failure to use induction correctly.

    So, “All the swans I’ve seen are white (from a set of particular swans), therefore all swans are white (to the greater general set of all swans)” is a good, if not wholly reliable, inference [it’s one that can be corrected]. It’s empirical, and empirically testable and correctable. However, “All the swans I’ve seen are white, therefore there is an underlying whiteness to the universe.” doesn’t make sense. Whiteness is a colour property, of only some of the things that have colour, and is not a universal property of the universe. It’s a grand metaphysical claim from little and specific empirical data – as is ‘objective’ morality (out there in the universe, or God given), as is God. It doesn’t make sense to infer anything related to morality, or justice, in the wider universe when the only evidence we have of it is in a very specific subset of the components of the universe: us.

    “It is possible that the universe, wherever it comes from, created God”

    That seems most likely, in that it created a species that created gods, many gods, as an imaginative explanation for why the universe and humans were created. Gods exist, as conceptual models in the brains of humans, which from all the evidence we have suggests that gods are nothing more than dynamic physical sub-states of mushy brains, that have meaning only to those brains in the wider context of how brains invent ideas, some with and anthropomorphic twist. I’m not aware of any other evidence of gods other than as human inventions.

    “In one part of this essay mechanical systems are said to be purposeful, and at the end they are said to be purposeless.”

    That’s because the term ‘purpose’ is used in different ways.

    From the perspective of a physicalist ‘purpose’ is a convenient model, of a localised mechanistic function. Wind up a clock-work toy and its ‘purpose’ is merely to do stuff while it winds down. This is very much like life – the forces at work in the universe cause loclaised clumps of low entropy that ‘winds down’ towards higher entropy, the ‘wind down’ staved off only by a couple of sub-functions of the life mechanism: survival through energy acquisition – food.

    But traditionally theists and other mystics seem to think that ‘purpose’ is something associated with some special agency-type ‘stuff’ or ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ (never clearly defined, or evidenced). The mechanistic interpretation is essentially saying that without evidence for these spooky things, what we thought was ‘purpose’ is actually something quite more mundane, earthly, biological, chemical, physical – mechanistic. But, using the term ‘purpose’ resonates so well with our ingrained perspective that it and other teleological terms are still useful – you only have to bear in mind when using them that we are not referring to the spooky stuff.

    To get a better feel for how mechanistic ‘life’ is, and how teleology seems to arise, seemingly magically yet quite mechanistically, try this:


    There’s no need to try to understand the specifics. The general ideas about how ‘life’ works is explained quite well. In fact to avoid getting bogged down in the detail, run it at abut 1.5 speed.

  22. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Interestingly, bacterial, viral and parasitic illness can be explained in terms of purposes. The purposes of the bacteria, virus or parasite.”

    No. The component parts of bacteria, virus or parasite that contribute to the existence of these beings, have a purpose. But the beings themselves have no purpose. The illness, or wellness of their host is not inconsequential to them, but neither is their purpose. We can purpose or repurpose products of other entities. Penicillium mould produces antibacterial toxins to protect its’ own existence. We can repurpose these toxins for our own use; in medicine, and cheese making. Candida, can cause an irritating infection; but it can be repurposed to create alcohol and make bread. That we find a use for yeast’s purposeless excrement, it’s usefulness is in the eye of the beholder. Human’s do not exist for the purpose of producing excrement for bacteria to feast on, but maybe from the perspective of a fecal feasting teleologically inclined bacterium we do.

    “It is just that when people think the purpose is in the realm of the supernatural that we get bad religion.”

    Generally, any bad idea is when people take a relatively good or useful idea and over extrapolate into territory where it is worse than useless.

    To employ some Daniel Kahneman; humans have two ways of thinking; heuristically, which is fast and without much consideration. Then there is cognitive thinking, which is much slower than heuristics, but can cover the range of where particular heuristics fail. It can create new heuristics, and even floridly complex systems of heuristics, that lead to institution building, incense burning, and the occasional human sacrifice.

    Words in language are at their barest, heuristics. Purpose or teleos are heuristics. There are many things in the world that have necessary functions for beings; the wolf has big eyes and big teeth, all the better to see and eat. For a being like man to survive in the world, they must have a faculty for a useful understanding of things. Usefulness doesn’t necessarily mean true, just useful. The simpler a heuristic, the better it functions for heuristic thought; but it might only be true over a limited range.

    In the Q&A section of a talk on evolutionary psychology I saw recently, there was an interesting exchange between the philosopher/psychologist and a biologist in the audience. On the teleological misunderstandings in evolutionary biology. That adaptions do not necessarily evolve to suit their purpose, but they are often the result of an existing adaptation being repurposed. Creationists would argue that it is impossible for an eye to suddenly evolve into existence, but if you look at cyno-bacteria; they eat light. A mouth over time can become an eye. But the mouth did not begin with the purpose of becoming an eye. And seeing, the purpose of an eye, did not exist until a mouth was repurposed for that purpose.

    Two statement; “things can have a purpose”, and “everything has a purpose”, both are functional as heuristics. But when you examine either; with your faculty for reason, you may go with the second statement being truer than the first. And in your examination of the world your are confident everything has a purpose, and you describe the world in an anthology of teleological narratives. And not only can this lead to bad religion, it can lead to awfulness like bad evolutionary psychology; where a misanthropic professor who’s been an asshole all his life, can feel redemption and blame it on his genes. He can’t help being an asshole (there is a hidden mechanism guiding all his asshole actions), him being an asshole serves the ever onward and upward progress of the universe. The likely truth is that there is no extrinsic purpose to him being an asshole, he has just used the human faculty for tool making, repurposed himself into one.

  23. JMRC,

    True-one could explain everything without any reference to purpose. Including blog posts.

  24. 😆 🙄 :mrgreen: ❓ mind boggling at best

  25. Would it make a difference whether it is chance (or determinism), or purpose; would humans fare better under one than under the other? Humans would still be entities in one system or the other. It could be perceived that there would be greater control in a random or mechanistic system than in one which has a purpose. That humans did not originate the purpose and may not be able to circumvent it could be seen as problematic; it could be perceived as denying autonomy.

    It may come down to what we are comfortable with, a mechanistic system we may at some point be able to control, or a purposeful system we could align with. As perception is reality, we choose our reality until we really know.

  26. @Vina – “Would it make a difference whether it is chance (or determinism), or purpose ..?”

    Of course that depends what the purpose is (if there is one). We might have a clue if we knew who or what was setting the purpose. Those of a religious disposition are confident they have a handle on that, of course. Unfortunately for the rest of us (more enlightened) souls, there’s no obvious way of choosing amongst the wide variety of ‘purposes’ on offer under the different creeds.

    Strangely, it can be argued that acceptance of the notion of purpose denies the logical possibility of free will. As you said, if we had it, we could notionally circumvent the ‘purpose’ that who-or-whatever had intended. The Christian theologians in particular have have had quite a time with all that. Equally, many arch rationalists (as I could broadly describe myself) increasingly have the view that free will is an illusion compellingly generated by our conscious mental functions. So there might be no room for free will on either side of this philosophical divide.

    One aspect of ‘purpose’ that isn’t widely addressed by the religionists is whether their god(s) can be thwarted in their purpose – i.e. whether we, or any other of the creatures available here, can circumvent the divine purpose in the way that our individual human purposes so frequently seem to be! It is one reason for the abstruse arguments about the ‘free will’ options between heaven and hell in standard Christian discourse. The Greeks did at least allow for that – their gods often had a tough time getting their own way (i.e. fulfilment of their divine purposes) with one another, as well as with humankind; those ideas didn’t last.

    The ‘stuff happens’ attitude (in the sense of ‘just happens’) with which Mike concluded his essay remains ever more compelling where I am.

  27. The main problem in this debate arises from the near-impossibility of using a vocabulary that is free of anthropocentric associations. The maxim to go by is that: “Nothing is DONE in nature, everything HAPPENS”. If nothing is ‘done’ there is no Doer. So that takes care of the ‘argument from design’. “Everything happens” flows inevitably from what we now know about Nature: all events follow universal and immutable mathematical laws. There is no question of any intentionality, but “Tendency” is another matter. All empirical evidence – if we take into account the developments from the ‘Big Bang’ to the birth-cry of a newborn – shows that matter has what appears to us as a tendency towards organisation. The evolution of the galaxies, the birth of the elements from interstellar dust, the formation of crystals,the (so far not fully explained) emergence of life from inanimate matter and the incredible processes of biological evolution, all confirm this. There is no room for anthropocentric ideas like purpose or intention in this context.

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