Teleology, Destiny and a Life of Purpose

Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 1 comment

Image: Scuola di Atene by Raphael, via Wikipedia.

Recently I read a very interesting article at the Aeon website titled Your Point Is? , by author Stephen Poole. The main gist of the article was a criticism of a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel. The title of the book certainly sounds impressive, and promises to contain many thought provoking ideas, but as Poole points out in his article, ideas of a teleological existence have been left out of modern science and thought for nearly 500 years. There is a very good reason for this. Teleology, or the idea that all life has a purpose, while a comforting idea in a life that may be otherwise devoid of meaning, is nothing more than just that; a comforting thought.

While I have not read Nagel’s book, the ideas as outlined in the article by Poole bring to the fore many questions which I think are worth pursuing, if only discussing briefly (as is the nature of a blog piece).

Firstly, I think the word of teleology deserves to be, at a minimum, given a definition. Google gives me this result:

  1. The explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.
  2. The doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

According to Wikipedia, teleology was an idea proposed by Plato and Aristotle and is:

“…any philosophical account that holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature.”

A teleological standpoint, therefore, posits the idea that all things first serve a purpose, and that they then, inevitably strive to meet this purpose. In the classical sense of the term, it also implies that this is done by design rather than by chance. To extrapolate this classical sense of teleology is the idea that if there is design, and therefore there is a designer. Ergo, god. In a simpler sense, teleology may be seen as the idea that things happen for a reason, with that reason being first assigned by its need, or desired end state. An example of this version of teleological cause can be found in a separate review of Nagel’s book, on the website Threepenny Review, by author Louis B. Jones:

“… teleological causes like to explore the future: the rain fell in order to make the grass grow, to provide grazing for summer cattle, so that the cattle may fatten and be butchered, to provide meat for the poet who lives in the glade, so that one day she may write her great meditative poem, so that, finally, Allah may be glorified.”

If we look forward into the future, and phrase things in such a way that “in order for the grass to grow, we need rain; the rain fell to make the grass grow”, we start to see the teleological argument take some kind of shape in our minds. It’s easy to do this when trying to explain why things happen, but it’s a backward way of thinking, especially in a universe where causation seems to lead to an outcome, rather than a predetermined outcome being the inevitable end-state of any given being or object.

Before we get too deep, let’s first work backward, because the difference between a teleological universe and one of causation can be a little difficult to grasp all in one hit. Causation talks of the relationship between cause and effect; all events have previous causes which lead toward a certain event. Any event can’t be said to have occurred until it has seemingly passed us by, but at this point we can evaluate the events and actions that led up to that moment. This sounds simple enough, since we experience the arrow of time always pointing forward; we can’t undo the past, and also find it difficult to grasp as a concept of past as anything but “something behind us” in terms of our movement “forward” in time. The nature of determinism is “the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, have sufficient causes”, so causation and determinism can be looked at as ways to evaluate the way things “come about”. This is not to say that we can determine what will happen in a complex system with any level of certainty, there are far too many variables and unknowns in any given situation to do this. We can make educated predictions of outcomes based upon previous experiments, but we can’t predict the future.

In a teleological universe, along with the idea that past events have caused present situations, teleology posits that life has an innate purpose to fulfill. This often runs hand-in-hand with the human-centric notion of a divine plan, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be coming from a mystical standpoint. In theory, there could in theory the space for a naturalistic approach to teleology without the need for a god, but this still presupposes that there is a destiny to be fulfilled, whether penned by a god or just “the way things are” by the laws of nature.

It is possible to talk of the teleological purposes of inanimate objects too, such as rain, soil, fossil fuels, and their relationships with plants and animals all as a very complex purpose-fulfilling system, but teleology really comes into play as an argument only when applied to humanity; it is the nature of the idea of “purpose” that we apply it first to our own situations, then build it to include the world and universe around us. To take this standpoint, rather than a world of cause and effect or a deterministic universe, means that past events have little effect on future events, since the end-state has already been determined or designated.

The notion of a human-centric universe, where we were created to fulfill a purpose, is just about the most selfish and blinkered idea I can think of. It places humanity at the centre of the universe (which we now know we are not), and it places importance on humanity above that of the rest of the planet. With the universe being as vast as it is, to suggest that humanity is somehow pivotal to the outcome of the universe is nothing but blind egotism.

How does the notion of teleology fit into the theist proposition of free will? How can a god have a purpose in mind for us all, and a grand plan if we are all given the free will to defy his/its will and grand scheme? The simple answer is, this proposition was put forth, again, by people who have already decided the outcome before embarking on the mind-journey of free-will vs teleology. In order for a god to make a teleological universe with an end purpose, but to fill it (well, to fill this planet anyhow) with beings such as ourselves, that so often go against his/its edicts and doctrines as set out in the holy books, a caveat needed to be added, one that allows for people to do evil or deny god of their own free will. Therefore the idea of going to hell becomes the fault of the individual, which by spectacularly rotating circular logic, is all part of god’s teleological plan.  But many have no problem with this situation, as “god works in mysterious ways”, and cognitive dissonance is a stubborn mule to deal with.

Again, having not read Nagel’s book, I’m not sure how much weight he put on his assertions that the existence of human consciousness points at a teleological universe, so again, I’ll just go with my thoughts in relation to Poole’s article. Poole writes:

“In Mind and Cosmos, subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Nagel revives the concept of teleology on the basis of his conviction that the mind-body problem has more serious ramifications for evolutionary science than is ordinarily accepted. How does the electrochemical activity of neurons in the human brain produce subjective, first-person experience? Nobody knows. Nagel says that the appearance of conscious beings such as us can be described as the universe waking up. Yet to him it seems unlikely that life would ever have got started in the first place, somehow springing forth from ‘dead matter’; still more unlikely that some forms of life would have developed consciousness; and extremely improbable that one form of life would have acquired the ‘transcendent’ power of reason. In order to explain these events, Nagel suggests, you need more than simply the ‘mechanistic’ tools of the laws of physics, natural selection, and so on. You need not just physical theory but ‘psychophysical theory’. And you might even need teleology.”

However, it seems that many speak of “consciousness emerging” in humanity as a sudden thing, i.e. that one generation of apes were entirely selfless, and suddenly their progeny had a consciousness. Following the theory of evolution, we know this wouldn’t be the case. Just like transitional fossils can show us the animals that existed between a lizard and a horse, for example, what we call consciousness is, in varying degrees, known to exist in many non-human animals to varying degrees. In apes and dolphins, cats, dogs, birds et al, we see varying degrees of self awareness, altruism, empathy, intelligence and communication, which is most of the things we define as hallmarks of a “conscious creature”. As with the evolution of animals, consciousness is something that probably started as a simple selfless aversion to pain, and over the ensuing generations of differing species, self awareness developed by piecing together small parts of awareness about environments and others until what we call consciousness today emerged. It was not a jump from an unaware pond-skipper to a fully conscious humanoid, just as man didn’t spring suddenly from a monkey, and chickens don’t give birth to cats. The fact that humans have what we call “consciousness” is simply an observation of the way things are, but gives no pointers to the notion of the “end-state” that teleology proposes. Evolution is not a system working toward an end. In fact, evolution is an opportunistic system, whereby those that survive, either by advantage or luck, live to breed another generation, and any small mutations, whether advantageous or not, are carried to this generation. There is much genetic baggage we carry that serves neither as an advantage nor a threat to our survival, but large obvious threats within genetics or physical traits tend to spell the end of a lineage, while advantageous ones that actually help with survival may tend to be carried on. There is no plan at work here, rather a huge chaotic mess that has some semblance of order when looked at in hindsight.

It is entirely possible, in fact probable, that things could have ended up entirely differently to the way they have today. One minute change in the direction evolution took, and the entire human race may never have eventuated. In fact, there’s nothing to propose that human consciousness was “meant” to emerge, all we can say is “it did”. To say that something “is”, is not to say that this the way it was meant to be. The “is-ought” argument (making arguments about what ought to be based on conclusions from what is) simplifies everything down to only one possible conclusion; teleology. That is to say, if what is is what ought to be, then there is no other possible outcome for the evolution of the planet but to end up, at this stage, with us. The accepted understanding of evolution is not an aim toward a goal, but natural selection by the most adaptable of species within each ecosystem or environment. There is nothing  within nature that points that what is is the only way thing could be, quite the opposite in fact. There are many more ways for things to not end up as they are now,  as opposed to the single way they have gone to end up here.

I can’t say with any certainty that the teleological argument holds no truth; it could, but I am in no position to disprove it. Certainly there is a possibility that evolution does work toward outcomes, but there is no proof, nor even a viable experiment that we know of to arrive at this conclusion. Again quoting from Poole’s article:

“The problem for fundamental teleology as a scientific hypothesis is not that it is definitely not true, but rather that we currently have no ways to test for such regularities as might be theoretically promoted to teleological laws, or even any very detailed descriptions of what such laws might say.”

While I agree with Poole on this point, the fact remains that the burden of proof for a specific claim, such as teleology, remains in with the claimant, not with the skeptic of such claims, much as with the “god question”, where it is entirely up to the claimant to prove the existence, not the other way around. I personally see no reason to believe that we are here to fulfill any purpose. Rather I take inspiration from the opening lines of Richard Dawkins’ book “Unweaving The Rainbow“:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

I’ve said on this blog before, the only purpose I think we have in life is the purposes we assign for ourselves. The only meaning we can distill from our existences is the ones we find in our lives, striving to be good to people, looking after our families, our friends, and our loved ones, striving in our careers, and in our homes, and other similar aspects of our lives we hold dear. These are arbitrary, but important to us; they help us to get by without feeling our lives are pointless, and though they may be without a set purpose, they make us important to those around us.

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1 Comment

  1. >>How does the electrochemical activity of neurons in the human brain produce subjective, first-person experience? Nobody knows.

    Nagel’s argument is trivially true, yet profoundly false.
    Linguistically, chemistry doesn’t explain psychology. Yet brain chemicals *do* explain that familiar feeling of “being in control” …because that feeling can be so easily taken away from you by simply pumping your system full of drugs.

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