English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque and Enlightenment

Teleology and Science

[You may first wish to consult the glossary entry on Telos and Teleology in general.]

An archeologist will be concerned to describe as carefully as possible the material and formal features of the objects she unearths, along with the details of the location of the find (where was it discovered in relation to other things unearthed). But ultimately she will want to know whether what she has in hand is a made object at all and, if so, what role it was designed to play in the larger pattern of life she is seeking to make discover and make sense of.  If she determines the object is "natural" and not man-made, she will still want to ask whether it might have been collected or deposited by the people who formerly occupied the site, and, if so, to what end:  as raw material for some objects intended to be made (dwellings, tools, jewelry, etc.) ? as food? as jewelry? as un-tooled tools? as magical talismans? as refuse in a garbage heap?  Only when she has filled in many pieces of this grand puzzle over prevailing patterns of behavior can she start to raise questions and seek answers about the vanished people's experience of, and assumptions about, their own nature, place, and purpose in the world -- which is what archeology ultimately wants to know.  But before an object can even be admitted as a piece of the puzzle about the material culture of the site, the archeologist has to propose some account of the purposes it might have served for the people who made or gathered it.  And this "what for?" curiosity is an inquiry into the object's telos or final cause within the society in question.  To investigate the teleology of something is to try to figure out the various chains of means and ends that it is/was designed to serve or, in the case of a complex something, the chain of means and ends that dictate or must have dictated its particular material and formal properties (what it's made out of, what shape these materials have been given, and how these are assembled).

Archeology, of course, is a social science concerned with the interpretation of excavated traces of vanished societies, and the great bulk of these remnants are artifacts.  The question arises as to whether explanation in terms of final causes has any place in the natural sciences (physical and biology), or even, for that matter, in social sciences not directly focused on artifacts. 

Well, aren't societies themselves, though, artifacts -- man-made constructions?  To the degree that they, or aspects of them, are so regarded, then teleological explanation will be regarded as essential.  The Greeks of the classical age (in the 5th Century BC) regarded the Athenian constitution (the basic customs that traditionally governed the conduct of public affairs) as the product of a single genius lawgiver, Solon (today regarded as legendary).  Americans understand the original U.S. Constitution to be the reflective and deliberate work of the Founders -- a collectivity rather than an individual, but a collectivity whose composition can be confidently identified (those who voted at the Constitutional Convention, and those who played important roles in drafting the document there voted upon).  In such circumstances it makes sense to talk of (and dispute upon, and investigate) the purpose of this or that clause or provision (after all, someone provided it!) 

But many aspects of society are not so definite in their origins (real or supposed).  Who, for example, invented the customs of teen-age courtship in the 50s?  And does it make sense to talk about these in terms of their "purpose"?  Even with constitutions and concrete legislation, political scientists find themselves focusing their attention less on what the motives of legislators or even lobbying groups happen to have been than on how the effects of the legislation actually play out, and the role these effects end up constructing for it in the ever-changing overall social scene and system in which it assumes its place.  These consequences are almost always far more complex than anything intended or even imagined by the individuals who played a role (formal or informal) in the establishment of the law in the first place.  And, in general, political scientists -- and sociologists, economists, psychologists, historians of institutions and wars and social movements -- prefer to talk about the function of the elements they isolate rather than the purposes of these.  The question they are interested in is not what something is designed for but rather what role it can be discovered to have in the maintenance or alteration or breakdown of this or that social order or individual pattern of behavior.  Many of those engaged in this sort of activity (as opposed to what our archeologist was up to) therefore propose that their explanatory efforts be described as functional analysis rather than teleological explanation.  Others, while describing what they investigate as "the teleology" of this or that element of society or personality, point out that they have adapted the traditional term to refer to an analogous, but essentially different aspect of the object under study, and indeed insist that they mean it as a synonym for what their colleagues prefer to call functional analysis.  In other words, they indicate that they are interested in the roles of things rather than the purposes for which they were designed -- even when, as they occasionally do, they are looking at things that can legitimately be assigned to a designer, as opposed to things that are the product of a complex history of circumstance, as is far more usual.

The case is similar in the contemporary life sciences, which got under way, historically, at about the same time (in the 19th Century) that biology was taking on the character we today recognize as "science."  Biochemists will talk about the role of a given molecule -- it is a receptor, or an inhibitor, or an antagonist/blocker, or whatever.  They will talk, that is, about what it does in this or that setting, and what the further consequences of its doing this are, and what the consequences of its not doing this would be.  In other words, they are interested in its function within some more comprehensive process, just as the physiologist is interested in the function of that more comprehensive process within (say) the neuroendocrine system as a whole, and of this in turn in the life of the organism to which it belongs.  Talk of "purpose" either obscures what is actually being focused on, or begs the question.  Similarly for ecologists:  they are interested in how various organisms affect the conditions of each others' existence -- how they function in a given "moment," and how these functions themselves may change over time.  All of these investigators are working, it is clear, within the tradition of question-framing we associate, in the biological sciences, with Charles Darwin (whose Origin of Species was first published in 1859).  They reject the assumption that it advances understanding of how systems (cells, the lymph regime, organisms, environments) actually behave (maintain themselves, undergo change) if one steers one's curiosity to what the purposes may have been of some creator of them. The latter is simply outside their scope of interest and, indeed, is regarded, for the purposes of science, as a futile distraction.  The conviction is (1) that nothing can be known of purposes concerning natural phenomena that in turn contributes to understanding of how things actually work, and (2) that, in connection with nature, how things actually work is what one really wants to know.  That is:  (1) When one knows how things in fact work, that is the end of it:  it does not advance understanding of the phenomena to take the next step and declare, "Well, that then must be what Jehovah (Allah, Brahma) intended."  At the same time, (2) the understanding that biologists do acquire by focusing on functions is what spectacularly pays off in the engineering feats based on it.  It is this exclusive focus on how things work that enables (to name just a few examples) heart surgery, pharmacology, the devising of new crop varieties (e.g., via wheat genetics) -- the achievements, in other words, of modern medicine and agriculture, achievements that have fundamentally changed the conditions of life, since the middle ages, in ways that human beings are intensely grateful for, because these have effectively spoken to two of the species' most intense desires:  for comfort, and for security.  The paradox seems to be that the power of human creators to construct artifacts that do things that human beings want done is increased if human investigators of nature set aside the question of what purposes some creator of nature might have had in fashioning the material world in whatever way it happens to work, and concentrate instead just on figuring out in detail exactly how the world we find ourselves in happens actually to work.

In the natural sciences, the abandonment of teleology in the classical sense of the term goes back even further, and in fact their dropping of teleological explanation (more fundamentally, teleological agendas of curiosity) was the inspiration for Darwin's own shift of focus.  In this shift, geology and chemistry followed physics and astronomy.  Indeed, it is the Copernican Revolution (stretching from 1543 to 1687) that is the crucial episode.  The contrast between Copernicus (who set it in motion) and Newton (who consolidated and confirmed it, by showing how it had to be true) drives this home in a striking way.  Between the 16th and the 17th Century, that is, teleological explanation is for the first time banished from the precincts of science.  And from then on, it has been banished from every science, except insofar as that science concerns itself with human artifacts. 

The consequences of excluding God from the scientific explanation of nature and society (and hence history) have been far-reaching and immense.  As just one example:  it amounts to re-defining theology, traditionally understood as "divine science" (in the sense of "knowledge of God"), as not science (in the sense in which "science" has prestige in the modern world.)  The consequences in turn of this, some would say, have been intellectually and socially liberating.  Others would say:  socially and intellectually catastrophic.  But before we undertake to assess the impact of the exclusion of teleological explanation from what comes to be recognized as science, we should clearer about what it means to say that such a change took place.

It is crucial here to understand what he meant by the term hypothesis on this occasion.  He did not mean what we have been meaning by the term.  In our sense, a hypothesis is a some supposed scenario or principle which, if true, would entail the data being the way they are.  Hence, Copernicus's theory is a complex descriptive hypothesis about how things might really be in space such that the appearances experienced by an observer on earth, situated within the overall system in the way the hypothesis has it situation, would turn out to be what in fact those experiences are (i.e., have been and continue to be).  Kepler's laws of planetary motion are descriptive hypotheses about how the planetary motions, within a general Copernican framework, would have to be if they really are to produce the data we have (which turn out to be different from what Copernicus' original version requires them to have been).  Newton's laws of motion, together with the law of gravity, are principles that, if they are true, would require the planets to move in the paths (around the sun) that Kepler, in turn explaining the observed phenomena, says they do, and which also explain the way falling bodies we can experimentally examine on earth do in fact move, according to the mathematical descriptions of the results of these trials as formulated by Galileo (in his Two New Sciences).  What Newton means when he proudly declares that he makes no hypotheses is that he stops with successful physical explanation -- that he does not try in turn to explain these laws in turn with hypotheses of a non-physical sort.  People note that in his Law of Gravity he postulates action at a distance:  any two masses attract each other, across the space between them, with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  "What causes this?!?" they ask, "How can this be?"  How can one thing affect another without touching it, or touching something rigid that in turn touches it?  "We understand," they say, "how a force applied by my hand can be transferred through a lever to move a stone three feet away, but what is going on "behind" the force of gravity you describe that enables it to operate between two material bodies are not themselves connected by some material object?"  "I have no idea, and don't care," says Newton.  "The system of principles I have proposed suffice to explain why results obtained by Kepler and Newton are as they are, and that is enough."

What he means is that succeeded in formulating a simple series of principles which, if true, would explain a stunning range of observed phenomena, and that these principles have furthermore held good for phenomena that have appeared since the principles themselves were formulated, thus promising to be able to be confirmed by all future experience.  That success alone is enough to convince us of the truth of the principles, at least within the range of the sorts of phenomena they have been formulated to cover:  the observable motions of all massive bodies in the heavens and on the earth (a pretty impressive range!).  In the first place, we don't have to know how come these principles are true in order to know that they are true.  Whether they are true or not is exclusively a question of how well they cover the facts (whether these are phenomena themselves or [lower-order] hypotheses that adequately cover these]).  But more:  explanations of the metaphysical sort, for natural phenomena, add nothing to our understanding of their behavior, which is what, in natural philosophy (what today we call natural science), we are after.  Some examples:

Suppose we proposed that the reason bodies with mass behave in the way Newton's laws postulate is that all matter "loves itself," so that when pieces of matter are separated, they "want to get back together again."  But how would this help us in explaining the Law of Gravity?  Newton's Latin term attraere means "to draw together."  OK, they approach each other.  But what does the concept "self-love of matter" contribute to understanding what Newton precisely says?  Why, if matter "loves itself," should two separated portions of matter draw together with a velocity directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them?  Why not directly proportional to the sum of their masses, or to just the difference between their masses?  And why not inversely with the distance, or with double the distance, or with the cube of the distance?  The Law of Gravity is exactly what it is, but the idea that "matter loves itself" does nothing to clarify why it is exactly what it is -- and it would do nothing to clarify why the Law of Gravity should be different, had it turned out (in relation to the evidence it genuinely explains) to be different. 

Kepler's modifications make Copernicus's theory able to describe the regularities in way things actually work in space such that the regularities directly observed from earth are what they are.  Galileo's formulae describe mathematically the observed behavior of falling bodies in multiple experiments (in which factors like the height, weight, and time of fall are varied).  Newton's laws of motion describe the ways matter in general behaves in space such that the regularities formulated by Kepler and those formulated by Galileo are what they are.  But the supposition that "matter loves itself" does not describe any regularities of any properties of matter more fundamental than the laws of motion themselves such that the laws of motion must obtain.  Whether matter loves itself or not, the laws of nature are as they are.  And if the laws of nature were different than they are, this would not tell us whether matter doesn't love itself.  The idea that "matter loves itself" is in such disconnection from what it is proposed to explain as to be altogether irrelevant to it (and hence irrelevant to explaining it).  We can thus ignore the idea that "matter loves itself" and get on with the business of science, where there is plenty left to be explained, and plenty that genuinely explains yet to be discovered.

In Molière's play The Imaginary Invalid (or The Hypochondriac), the title character asks his physician why the sleeping pills he has been given make him drowsy; the learned doctor answers that this is because they are possessed of a soporific virtue.  (A "virtue" in the jargon of the time was a power or potency, and the word "soporific" means "sleep-inducing.")  The patient is delighted that he now understands something he was puzzled about before.  If we think about it, there is something very similar between the idea that "matter loves itself" as an explanation of Newton's Law of Gravity and the idea that sleeping pills make us drowsy because they have the power of making us sleepy -- i.e., they are sleeping pills because they are...sleeping pills.  The cases are not precisely the same sort.  The doctor's explanation is completely circular.  (It just disguises the question in an obscure paraphrase and hands it back to the questioner as if it were the answer to his question!) There is "no distance" between that which is to be explained and that which is invoked to explain it (behind the disguise of terminology they are identical), whereas between Newton's laws and the supposed "self-love of matter" there is "the wrong sort of distance."  But the cases are similar in the crucial respect that the "explanation" is not false but just not an explanation at all.  In the hypochondriac's case, the "explanation" fails to explain because it is the same as what it is supposed to explain.  In the case of the supposed metaphysical principle that "matter is an auto-amorous substance," the "explanation" fails to explain because, to the degree that this says anything beyond the Law of Gravity itself (which in any case is definite and specific enough actually to be informative about what it refers to), it is completely disconnected from, and hence irrelevant to what it is supposed to explain (the Gravity Law).  This is why such "explanations" have come to be called pseudo-explanations:  their phrasing, and the situation in which they are put forward, give them the appearance of explanations.  But this appearance -- which can range from the flimsy to the tenaciously seductive -- is only appearance.  (They are also sometimes called ad hoc explanations.  The phrase "ad hoc" is Latin for "to that."  The idea is that such explanations are just "added to" what they explain, but what is so adjoined is not connection to some more fundamental scenario or principle behind the thing to be explained, just something "tacked on.")

Test your understanding of all this by examining the following scene.  Bill is at a party, and finds himself getting giddy.  He asks John why he's feeling light-headed.  John tells him it's because of the punch.  He turns to Jane and asks him why the punch makes him feel woozy.  Jane that's because its got rum in it.  He goes over to Jim and asks why drinking something that rum has been poured into makes one's head spin.  Jim says that's because it has alcohol in it.  He buttonholes Tom and asks why imbibing alcohol makes people drunk.  Tom says that's because alcohol is an intoxicating liquid. 

Now:  which of Bill's respondants have offered a genuine answer to the question posed?  Which has offered a pseudo-explanation?  (What sort of thing would, if we could get it, constitute a genuine answer to this particular question?)

Next:  suppose Jane was mistaken:  as it happens, there is no rum in the punch.  The host used brandy instead -- or the host was reliving his days as a member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and had spiked it with LSD.  Do you see how we could say that even though her explanation turned out to be false, it was genuinely an explanation, whereas one of the other answers is not even an explanation.  To distinguish these different kinds of "defective explanation," it is useful to have two different terms, and convention has settled upon "false explanation" for the first and "pseudo-explanation" for the second.  See how the defect in Tom's attempt to explain is, logically, more fundamental than Jane's?  Of course a genuine explanation that happens to be false can be "fatal" in a quite different way!  You have chronic heartburn; I diagnose it as a problem digesting lactose, and prescribe lactase tablets; and you experience relief.  This goes on for months, and it turns out that you end up with an inoperable cancer.  My explanation was off-the-mark factually in a quite serious way!  But I would have been logically more deeply off the mark if my explanation to you had been that your heartburn was the result of a condition of intestinal pain.  (We agree to treat this pain with Tylenol-plus-codeine.  You experience relief, but the cancer proceeds apace.)  That would be like telling someone that his arthritis was caused by an inflammation of his joints, when the term "arthritis" means "inflammation of the joint."  If we have pain in a joint, we want to know whether it is in fact a case of (i.e., due to) arthritis, i.e., inflammation (and hence swelling) there; and if it is arthritis, we want to know what caused that!

Suppose we proposed that the reason massive bodies behave as Newton says is that at every instant God wills that they alter themselves so that the net effect is that they are at the next instant be in the respective positions they are just then in, and so on through time.  (This is the view known as "occasionalism," because every "occasion" -- each individual instantaneous fact, throughout the entire cosmos -- is determined to be what it is by a corresponding concrete act of the deity's will.)  This would indeed cause the world to be just as Newton describes it to be.  But why could it not just as well be some other way (one of the ones we imagined above, for instance)?  "No problem," says the occasionalist, "that's because God just happens to will that things be just this particular way, in each successive moment."  But suppose we proposed a different explanation:  that the world behaves the way Newton formulates because those are the laws God built into the matter at the very moment of his creation of it, and nature has proceeded to operate on these laws, on its own, ever since, without divine assistance or interference.  (This is the view associated with the "deism" that many thinkers came to adopt who were associated with the movement known as the Enlightenment, in the course of the 18th Century.)  This, too, is something that we could claim even if the Laws of Motion had turned out to be different from what they happened to be.  Indeed, would it make any difference which of these theories one affirmed -- any difference in the way in which Nature actually behaved, i.e., in the laws of nature?  No:  both of these pictures of how God relates to the world of nature, and to the regularities detectable in its operation, are "add-ons" that get attached ad hoc after the laws of nature have been discerned (or, indeed, whether these laws have ever been formulated by humans or not). 

Neither accounts for what these laws are in a way analogous to the way in which Newtonian mechanics accounts for the motions of the planets as described by Kepler and the motions of falling bodies near the earth's surface as described by Galileo, or the way in which Kepler's description of the planetary motions account in turn for the observations astronomers confined to the earth's surface make of the night sky, or Galileo's generalizations cover the particular instances they do.  Newton's laws of motion would be wrong if Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion and Galileo's formulae for the paths and velocities of falling bodies accounted for the observations, but were themselves different from what they are (because the observed facts to be explained were different).  And Kepler's laws and Galileo's formulas would be wrong if the data were different from what they are.  Yet despite the fact that they are in flagrant contradiction to each other, both occasionalism and deism remain uncontradicted by whatever the facts happen to be, no matter what those phenomena and the laws they disclose in obeying could possibly be.  These would-be explanations neither determine what the facts must be, if they (occasionalism or deism) are true; nor do the facts, whatever they might turn out to be, determine which of them (occasionalism or deism) would have to be true.  In other words, occasionalism and deism tell us nothing about how what they purport to explain has to turn out in order for them to be true:  neither makes any predictions about what it is put forward to explain that could be confirmed or disconfirmed by the facts.  They are untouched by the way nature actually works no matter how it is that nature works.  We learn nothing about nature from them -- and we learn nothing about them (e.g., which of them, if indeed either, is really true) from nature.  This radical disconnection from what they are proposed to explain means that they are worthless as explanation:  they may appear to explain, but this appearance is false.  Science, in other words, can discard and ignore them, and proceed with its proper business, which can and does result in decisions about which hypotheses deserve to be regarded as provisionally true, and which are definitely false.  As for occasionalism and deism (and these are just examples), these are not, for science, false explanations, but no explanations at all:  they are pseudo-explanations.

In other words, Newton declares that, as natural philosophy, a theory is superior to the degree that it excludes teleological explanation, confining itself instead to descriptive and physical explanation.  (If we express this proposition using the term "hypothesis," we'll have to say something that at first sounds oppressively complicated, but on reflection will make sense:  in Newton's view, a hypothesis (in our sense of the term) is better to the degree that it refuses to admit hypotheses (in the sense Newton employs the term).

Does this mean Newton was an atheist?  Far from it.  It is true that Newton was ineligible to assume the position of don at Cambridge University, because he could not swear to the Thirty-Nine Articles, the basic creed of the Anglican Church.  But this was so because his own convictions were Unitarian.  In fact, Newton was passionately interested in the New Testament, and spent immense time and energy, paper and ink, trying to decipher the Book of Revelations, to discover when the Second Coming would occur.  The point is:  Newton had discovered that what he called "hypotheses" (and what we have been calling pseudo-explanatory hypotheses) did nothing to advance what he understood to be the aims of science (in his terminology, natural philosophy).  These aims, for him, were purely and simply to clarify what the rules of operation are for how nature actually works.  And he realized that, for this purpose, teleological explanation was only pseudo-explanatory, and had no contribution to make, no role to play. 

This is a realization that has since penetrated into all branches of science -- chemistry, geology, biology (in all its branches from genetics to ecology), psychology, sociology, anthropology, archeology, economics, political science -- except insofar as these have to do with human artifacts. 

The practice of all of these sciences, of course, is saturated with artifacts.  Hypotheses are human constructs, tools for accomplishing particular purposes (accounting for this or that order of presumed facts).  Instruments are human artifacts, fashioned to accomplish particular aims -- gathering data (telescopes, particle accelerators, questionnaires) or analyzing patterns in it (computers).  Scientific institutions -- learned societies, national research labs, university degree programs -- are human artifacts, formed in the pursuit of important ends (sharing and critique of information and theory, placing of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, planning of new projects and collaborations, training junior colleagues).  It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to be constantly assessing the adequacy of these means to their appointed ends, and this certainly amounts to a serious concern with teleology -- but not with teleological explanation.  Deciding whether something on hand could or ought to be made to serve new ends, or critiquing the adequacy with which some existing means accomplishes the ends it is designed to serve, or even explaining how something might be altered so as better to achieve its ends -- none of these is what we refer to as teleological explanation.  This consists rather in either of two distinct but complementary activities:  (1) showing why something has the properties it exhibits by pointing to the purposes it is designed to serve, or (2) inferring the purposes something serves by examining the properties it exhibits.

As for the objects of the sciences (that is, what they study), these are, with important exceptions, no longer discussed in terms appropriate to artifacts.  The exceptions are those cases, confined to the social and psychological sciences, where curiosity turns to such human artifacts.  One instance concerns the passage of laws and the foundations of institutions.  Even here, though, the interest is often only tangentially teleological.  Much interest focuses not so much on the motives of the framers as upon the often unanticipated results of these measures.  The main interest in teleological explanation shows up in anthropology and in the historical disciplines like archeology and institutional history.  Even in this sciences, though, the lion's share of attention may be functioned less upon teleology than upon functionality.

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      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 01 February 1999.