Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Teleology - Plato's Final Cause

Most people have never heard of the word teleology but is a very important idea. It is one of the oldest ideas and also one of the most controversial. It is intimately linked to the concept of Truth and its opposites are the more relativistic theories of knowledge. It is as fundamental to the way we think as religion or atheism. The problem is that many people (myself included) who believe they oppose it strongly actually often fall into the trap of supporting it.

The question of teleology rather than its contradiction of the bible account of creation is what made Darwin's Origin of the Species so controversial. Darwin introduced a two step process. In the first there was variability and in the second there was selection by reproductive success. The problem is this variability, as it does not have either cause or direction. In the Origin there is no need for progress and if there is no progress then there is no move toward some final perfection of the universe and so there is no ultimate cause, no reason for the universe to exist.

The modern synthesis of Darwinian Evolution as presented by Richard Dawkins in books like the Blind Watchmaker forgets this idea. While I am pretty sure that Prof. Dawkins would reject teleology completely from a philosophical viewpoint it does creep into his work. The problem is that it is very hard for us not to feel that we are superior to the rest of the world about us and so we instinctively talk of ourselves as a higher species that has evolved from more primitive species and this in turn implies progress. This rising to perfection is the argument for design. Now teleology can either be "designed" internally as a result of the behaviour of the system or externally as the result of a designer. So this is the fundamental difference between the teleology of Dawkins and that of religion.

Teleology applied more generally to science makes it very hard for us not to think that science will finally give us an absolute answer to everything and that this answer will be true. Plato wrote extensively in the Republic about this idea. Can there be a truth that we can discover? At first our ideas are mere shadows on the cave wall but can science discover the actual truth? Can we come out of the cave and see the world as it really is. Once we discover truth then there is no further for us to go. This would be the final aim of science - the ultimate cause of our investigations. Among educationalists teleology also creeps in where teachers think that there should be a convergence between pupil and teacher so that in the end the student will find the truth of the master's view.

Two modern proponents of teleology are John Barrow and Frank Tipler who wrote "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle". This uses lots of probability arguments to suggest that life is incredibly unlikely (in much the same way as the intelligent design argument) and so the world must have been created in the way it has just for us. I have paraphrased a very long and difficult book that I have not managed to complete in over 20 years. In effect they go back to the view of the world of Genesis where the Earth was the centre of the heavens but in this new world view humans are at the centre of the universe. The question of Why? has an answer.

For me this sort of teleology is an incredible arrogance but then I am also caught by the paradox that my rejection of teleology also becomes teleological. It is just something you should always be careful of when you make an argument. Am I falling into the trap of teleology? On the other hand what do wishy-washy relativisitic views of knowledge mean? So I bend towards relativism but I am sympathetic to some of the teleological thinkers, such as the logical positivists. Marxism for example is a teleological view of the evolution of society that implies that the rise of the proletariat against the Bourgeoisie is a final inevitable state of human society. So anti-Marxist philosophers have used anti-teleological arguments against logical positivism (see Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism).

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