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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Need help understanding teleology

I’m finding it hard to sleep, so I’m jotting down some thoughts on a question that has been troubling me. I’m having trouble grasping the Aristotelian idea of teleology, or final cause. This is basically the idea that many things in nature have an (unconscious) goal or function. An example would be kidneys – their function is to filter the blood. Evidently, contemporary philosophy of science has been trying to do away with the notion of final causes for the past 300 years, but it is apparently making a bit of a comeback these days with the “new essentialism” philosophy of nature. But I digress.

In the book I’m reading by Edward Feser, he gives the kidney example above as an example of something with a final cause. I get that example – kidneys do seem to have a function (i.e., a final cause). He gives another example: human action. For example, I go to the kitchen in order to get coffee. This is an example of (conscious) goal-directedness – my goal is to get some Java – i.e., a final cause.

But he gives some other examples that I’m having trouble seeing as (unconscious) goal-directedness. A match is “‘directed towards’ the generation of flame and heat as its final cause”. I wouldn’t call the flame and heat a “goal” of the match. That said, elsewhere in the discussion Feser uses terms like “inherent power” and “tendency” – these seem to fit the match better. So are there different kinds of teleology? Teleology of function (kidneys), teleology of conscious goal-directedness (getting coffee), teleology of inherent power (the match)? Or am I just having trouble seeing what these different examples have in common? I suspect it is the latter.

In fact, Feser reduces the idea of final cause to the following: “if there is a regular efficient causal connection between a cause A and an effect B, then generating B is the final cause of A”. He gives the example of ice making something cold. Because ice causes the drink to be cold, generating coldness is the final cause of ice. Ice inherently “points to” coldness or is “directed at” coldness as its natural effect. Hmm. Well if that is all it is, what’s so notable about that? What is it about final causes that contemporary philosophy of science finds so hard to believe? Is it Hume’s modern idea that we cannot say that cause A has an inherent power to bring about effect B, only that event E1 seems to be regularly followed by event E2?

Actually yes, I think that is the issue. Aristotle (and the average person) would say that a cause A (such as ice) has an inherent power to bring about effect B (making the drink cold). On the other hand, modern philosophers of science would say that all we can say is that an event E1 (putting ice in the drink) is regularly followed by an event E2 (drink gets cold). I believe this distinction is what separates Aristotelian “efficient causality” from modern “efficient causality”; that is, the Aristotelian thinks that there is something in the cause that has the power to bring about the effect, whereas the modern does not think in those terms at all – he just sees the first event regularly followed by the second event.

I'm not sure why the modern has such trouble with A-B, why he will commit only to E1-E2. Perhaps A-B has implications that are troubling to the modern mind? I would be interested to know what those would be?

Back to bed.


  • Just a couple thoughts,

    1. Is there a clear delineation on what qualifies as an object and what isn't an object? Considering, that everything we can interact with is just a collection of molecules or atoms, why can we pick certain groupings of atoms to have purpose? For example, with the human body, you picked the kidney as an object with a purpose.
    How about the following algorithm for an object: given a kidney, enumerate all the atoms for the object, and pick all the even atoms. Can this selection of atoms be an object, and how ?

    2. The central idea of philosophy of science is the scientific method - the process of unambiguously stating something, then verifying that with reproducible evidence.
    Hume's problem of induction is an interesting flaw with that process.
    I think that the reason modern philosophers/scientists have abandoned Aristotle's teleology(and Aristotle's scientific ideas in general) is that the ideas are difficult to state clearly, and therefore to test reproducibly, and to study them would require ignoring the scientific method.

    By Anonymous Pratik, at 8/23/2011 5:39 p.m.  

  • Hi Pratik,

    Disclaimer: I am not an expert in these matters.

    The viewpoint in 1 is the modern, mechanistic one - the one that is opposed to Aristotle's. I used to think in those terms, but you have to admit, there is something soulless about it. The modern would say, yes, you can look at things in exactly that way; whereas Aristotle would say, no, every object has an "essence" (aka "nature") that makes it what it is, that makes a kidney a kidney, that makes a man a man. So yeah, I see where you are coming from (a kind of bottom-up approach), but I believe that Aristotle is right and that there is a basic piece of reality that is missing from that picture: the essence/nature/form that makes a thing what it is.

    2. I have read this objection (that teleology is abandoned because it is hard to quantify), but the response to it that I have heard is that just because something is hard to quantify is no reason that it should be abandoned. If something is a basic unit of reality (like teleology, or essence as mentioned above), we should not abandon it because we cannot quantify it. That would be a mistake.

    Great points though - I see that you are clearly of a philosophical bent.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 8/23/2011 6:02 p.m.  

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