Like Sam Harris, I’ve been trying not to use technical terms and jargon in order to make this blog more accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, sometimes it is the case where the “correct” technical term and the large body of knowledge marshalled behind it just can’t be denied. More unfortunately, sometimes it is also the case that the technical term has been “dumbed down” enough, ostensibly for non-experts, that those same non-experts can clearly see the fallacies in the “dumbed down” version (or they use those fallacies to disprove something that is actually provably true — like using entropy to disprove the validity of evolution). And, most unfortunately, the philosophical terms “telos” and “teleology” are spectacular examples of this — with many armchair philosophers *totally* missing the point behind them.
I’ve been flailing around on this blog trying to explain *why* morality is what I propose that it is. Arguments about the “purpose” of morality are blocked by claims like “Science can find no telos — purpose — built into anything. This observation should severely caution anyone who wishes to entrust society to science.” In order to disprove claims like this, I need to go back and explain exactly which particular meaning of purpose it is that telos entails and exactly why science *does* find telos built into some natural things.
The dictionary defines telos as follows:
te·los [tel-os, tee-los]
–noun, plural te·loi
the end term of a goal-directed process; esp., the Aristotelian final cause.
Wikipedia expands upon this by saying:
Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something. Aristotle, who defined the term, explicitly argued that a telos can be present without any form of deliberation, consciousness or intelligence in general. For example (and according to Aristotle), a seed has the eventual adult plant as its final cause (i.e., as its telos) iff the seed would become the adult plant under normal circumstances.
Aristotle also specifically notes that not all phenomena have a final cause in the first place (“For though even the residua are occasionally used by nature for some useful purpose, yet we must not in all cases expect to find such a final cause…”) — yet, virtually all of the debate over teleology is caused by its detractors assuming that teleology requires that everything *does* have a final cause (an argument more properly attributed to theists who *really* do believe that everything does have a purpose derived from the deliberation/consciousness/intelligence of G*D). For example, Wikipedia notes “As a school of thought, teleology is often contrasted with metaphysical naturalism, which views nature as having no design or purpose.” Thus, while I am generally sympathetic to metaphysical naturalism, the undeniable telos of a seed proves that nature *does*, upon occasion, have a “purpose”.
Aristotle’s point is that the “purpose” or “design” of a seed is to produce the eventual adult plant. Yet, this is also the proximate cause of the seed because if the seed did not produce the eventual plant then the plant that produced the seed would have not evolved to produce it and the seed never would have existed. Or, as Wikipedia succintly puts it “Teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology.” Evolutionary writings are replete with teleological sentences — some appropriate, some obvious nonsense (minerals are “designed” to be used by plants which are in turn “designed” to be used by animals -or- prey is “designed” to feed the predator). John Reiss has even gone so far as to argue that evolutionary biology should be purged of all such teleology including rejecting the analogy of natural selection as a watchmaker as advanced from it’s religious origins by Richard Dawkins in his 1987 book.
Wikipedia also does a good job of conveying the contrary point of view saying:
Other authors are more skeptical. James Lennox has argued that Darwin was a purposeful teleologist, and biologist philosopher Francisco Ayala has argued that all statements about processes can be translated into teleological statements, and vice versa, but that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of. Karen Neander has argued that the modern concept of biological ‘function’ is dependent upon selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence without going through a process of selection has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analysing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, any talk of functions requires natural selection and selection cannot be reduced in the manner advocated by Reiss.
A clear example of this is that an eye has the function of “seeing” because seeing increases the “fitness” of possessing entities. This “function” (or “purpose”) directly led to it being evolved (i.e. it’s very existence). My (hopefully by now obvious — but not overly belabored) point is that the “purpose” or “design” or “function” (or telos) of morality as currently implemented by evolution is to increase the “fitness” of practicing entities. Exactly like a seed or an eye, if morality didn’t increase fitness, it wouldn’t have evolved. However, as demonstrated by the human eye and its “blind spot” caused by suboptimal nerve placement, evolution can frequently be improved upon once a desired functionality (or purpose) is identified.
Part II will get a bit wilder as I attempt to cover the requirements for telos, chaos and complexity theory, attractors, emergence, life, consciousness, panpsychism, dualism, free will, and more.