The word "teleology" means the study of ends. The Greek word telos---like the English word "end," as well as the French word fin and similar words in other languages---can mean either a simple conclusion or an aimed-at result. Teleology has to do with ends in this second sense---the sense of goals or purposes---as when one speaks of "the means to an end." Nowadays, the term is often used to designate end-related phenomena themselves, and not just their study. Thus, the word "teleology" most often refers to aims, goals, intentions, designs, purposes, and similar phenomena. It is one of the most controversial terms in our contemporary lexicon, amounting virtually to a swear word in some influential academic circles. The reason is that many scientists, philosophers, literary scholars, and others view it as a mark of intellectual honor to deny the existence of teleological phenomena.
At first, it might seem that the existence of such phenomena is self-evident, and could hardly be intelligibly denied. For example, suppose that I am thirsty and I go to the sink and pour myself a glass of water. It seems perfectly natural to say---and absurd to deny---that I went to the sink in order to drink water, and that I drank water for the sake of assuaging my thirst. It is equally obvious that the reason I was thirsty in the first place was because my body needs water and that water-drinking is good for me. My body's need for water, my thirst, my seeking water, and the goodness of water-drinking for me are all related to each other in a teleological manner. In short, whenever one thing happens for the sake of, or in order to bring about, some other thing because it is in some way valuable, we naturally feel that teleology is at work.
One of the charges that are often leveled against this way of thinking about teleology is that it is anthropomorphic. But note that the phenomena discussed in the preceding paragraph have nothing especially to do with the fact that I am a human being. When my cat rouses herself from her nap, hops down from the windowsill, and goes to her water bowl for a drink, the relationship between her body's needs and her actions appears to be identical to that between mine. If one is teleological, so is the other. Indefinitely many similar examples might be adduced. In such cases, I can simply look and see that one thing happens for the sake of something else's happening, that the second event or action is the goal or purpose of the first. When I notice that some nexus of events has this teleological structure, I am reasoning on the basis of perceptual evidence and my general background knowledge about the way the world works. This reasoning of mine is fully on an epistemological par with any other intuitive knowledge that I have about the world. Just as I can simply look and see that a butterfly is being blown off course by the wind, so too can I see that it is flying purposefully from one flower to another. In the same way, I can easily and unerringly detect the difference between a hawk that swoops on its prey and one that tumbles from the sky having been shot, or between a sunflower that swivels slowly to track the sun and a tree limb that sags under the weight of snow.
And yet, as self-evident and as empirically well-founded as teleological phenomena might seem, many intellectuals today claim that in reality they do not exist, that they are nothing more than a sort of illusion, a vestige of an outdated "folk psychology," a false theory about the way the world works. Why would anyone want to say such a thing? There is only one reason, and that is that teleology does not sit well with modern science.
Teleology was an essential component of the old way of understanding the world that early modern Europe inherited from the ancient Greeks. The fact that Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and other seventeenth-century philosophers banished Aristotle's "final causes," which Bacon called "barren virgins," has often been cited as one of the key factors in the Scientific Revolution. Once we realize that the rejection of teleology is seen as essential to our modern secular worldview, it becomes easier to comprehend why a seemingly counterintuitive hostility to teleology is such a pervasive feature of today's intellectual landscape.
However, the question is not whether the denial of teleology is historically and psychologically understandable. Rather, the real question is whether it is rationally justifiable. The justification for the claim that teleology has been debunked by contemporary science rests on two theoretical pillars: molecular biology and natural selection. Let us look at each of these, in turn.
* Molecular Biology and Teleology
* Natural Selection and Teleology
What are we to conclude from the failure of modern science to give an adequate account of teleology? There are two directions to go here. Some thinkers stress the fact that the only kind of teleology we really understand is intentional design by an intelligent agent. The watch on the heath implies the existence of a watchmaker. But as David Hume pointed out long ago, living organisms do not bear much resemblance to watches. For one thing, organisms grow by themselves, and watches do not. For another, watches cannot repair themselves, but organisms can. Certainly, there seems little justification for us to simply assume that the processes responsible for the teleology manifest in organisms are the same as those responsible for the teleology in watches.
On the other hand, it is true that we presently lack a rigorous and comprehensive theory of the self-organization of life. In recent years, speculation on the part of physicists concerning the possible purposive dynamics underlying the functional organization of living things has been steadily increasing; therefore, we are perhaps entitled to some optimism on this score. But, for now, members of all three schools in the debate on teleology---mainstream reductionism, Intelligent Design, and self-organization theory---ought surely to keep an open mind.
Editor(s): James Barham