Teleology and Science
article originally appeared on here
Intelligent Design Forum. ARN (Access Research Network) is a
non-profit organization dedicated to providing accessible information on
science, technology and society. Their web presence is at www.arn.org.
©2000 Access Research Network and the author. Reproduced with permission.
Teleology and Science
-Mike Gene, 2/26/2000
As a product of the government schools and
universities, I was always under the impression that the argument about design
began with William Paley and ended with Charles Darwin. In fact, in keeping with
my indoctrination about the warfare between science and religion, I was under
the impression that design was strictly a religious issue and objective science,
ala Darwin, had shown a better way. And what is going on today is nothing more
than the echoes of those religious knee-jerk reactions to Darwin's brilliant
explanation of our biological origins.
But alas, I should have known that my public
education was about as accurate as any other form of one-sided indoctrination.
It turned out as it always turns out; things are far more complicated than a
simplistic materialistic-based education lets on. A nice way of finding this out
is to read the first chapter of Barrow and Tipler's book, "The Anthropic
Cosmological Principle." In this chapter (entitled 'Design Arguments'),
Barrow and Tipler offer an excellent historical overview of both the design and
anti-design positions. I thought I would share some of their insights so we can
see the current design/anti-design debate in its proper context (rather than the
simple-minded 'Inherit the Wind' context that dictates so much of this debate)
for the new millennium.
The Argument is Old
Imagine you walk into a room full of scholars
representing two very different perspectives on the world. One group argues that
living things are the products of some greater wisdom. These scholars point to
various biological structures, such as the human eye, and argue that the optimal
arrangement of the parts seen in these structures point to some type of designer
as their cause. This same group also highlights the harmony and beauty that is
seen in the natural world, again suggesting a form of wisdom that lies behind it
all. The other group sees things very differently. They appeal to chance and a
huge span of time and argue that the harmony and optimal arrangements could very
well have arisen by chance. They argue that natural forces, over huge spans of
time, served to stabilize these ordered configurations and thus there is no need
to invoke any type of designer. This same group then highlights various chaotic
features of the world that suggest there is no designer.
You might be thinking that I have been talking
about a group of creationists and evolutionary scientists arguing in the
auditorium of a local college. You would be wrong. The scholars arguing in that
room actually once argued in the halls of Ancient Greece. The teleologists were
represented by men such as Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, and Aristotle. The
nonteleologists were represented by such men as Democritus, Leucippus of Elea,
and Epicurus of Samos. These thinkers argued back-and-forth with each other over
a period of about 200 years. Their works would later influence such European
scientists and philosophers as Robert Boyle, William Paley and David Hume.
In other words, the arguments for design did
not start with Paley, nor did they start with naïve religious believers. No,
such arguments began with people like Socrates and Aristotle. For example,
Socrates once extolled the human eye as a proof of the wisdom of the gods:
"Is not that providence, Aristodemus, in a
most eminent manner conspicuous, which because the eye of man is delicate in its
contexture, hath therefore prepared eyelids like doors, whereby to screen it,
which extend themselves whenever it is needful, and again close when sleep
approaches?…And cans't thou still doubt Aristodemus, whether a disposition of
parts like this should be the work of chance, or of wisdom and
Of course, Aristotle would take this all much
further. As Barrow and Tipler (B&T) point out:
"Aristotelian science was based upon
presupposition of an 'intelligent natural world that functions according to some
deliberate design'. Its supporters were therefore very critical of all those
pre-Socratic thinkers who regarded the world structure as simply the inevitable
residue of chance or necessity."
But what of the non-teleologists? B&T
"The Epicureans were, of course, anxious
to scotch any notions of supernatural causation or the appeal to any entity who
controls or ordains events. Interestingly, no useful scientific structure was
erected upon this materialistic foundation because Epicurus had a very low view
of mundane scientific investigation."
And then there is the Roman poet Lucretius
Carus (99-55BC). B&T write:
"Lucretius believed life to have
originated at some definite moment in the past by natural processes but that
created beings included 'a host of monsters, grotesque in build and aspect' who
were subsequently eliminated by their sterility."
These ideas sound strangely similar to those of
Charles Darwin. In fact, Lucretius even wrote:
"In those days, again, many species must
have died out altogether and failed to reproduce their kind. Every species that
you now see drawing the breath of the world survived either by cunning or by
prowess or by speed. In addition, there are many that survive under human
protection because their usefulness has commended them to our care."
I wouldn't be surprised if Darwin borrowed
these ideas and thus his views about natural selection are not something that
was forced upon him by the raw data (as the romantic story book version of
And speaking of borrowing, does this sound
"When we see some example of a mechanism,
such as a globe or clock or some such device, do we doubt that it is the
creation of a conscious intelligence? So when we see the movement of the
heavenly bodies…how can we doubt that these too are not only the works of
reason but of a reason which is perfect and divine?"
No, this is not from William Paley, but instead
was written by the Roman lawyer and orator, Marcus Cicero (106-43 BC). Cicero
would also write something that sounds equally familiar:
"Can I but wonder here that anyone can
persuade himself that certain solid and individual bodies should be moved by
their natural forces and gravitation in such a manner that a world so beautiful
adorned should be made by fortuitous concourse. He who believes this possible
may as well believe, that if a great quantity of the one and twenty letters,
composed of gold or any other matter, were thrown upon the ground, they would
fall into such order as legibly to form the 'Annals of Ennius'. I doubt whether
fortune could make a single verse of them."
Finally, even something as odd as the current
Many Worlds Hypothesis (used to side-step Fine Tuning) may not really be new.
The materialist Democritus would write:
"There are worlds infinite in number and
different in size. In some there is neither sun nor moon, in others there are
more than one sun and moon."
The point is that this debate between teleology
and materialism is at least 2500 years old and has involved some of history's
greatest thinkers. The notion that current ID arguments are nothing more than
Christian reactions to the painful "truth" of Darwinism is a notion
divorced from historical context.
If one's sense of history goes no further than
100 years, it's easy to get the impression that materialism has been vindicated
and teleology has been refuted. But if that sense spans 2500 years, one suspects
only that materialism has just recently obtained the upper hand with more
sophisticated versions of the same arguments. The ID movement has the potential
of evening the playing field by reviving its arguments in more sophisticated
versions. Is the 2500 year-old debate really over? Of course not.
Teleology Important to
Design critics often claim that the concept of
design has never been useful in science. They are plain wrong. A nice example
that demonstrates this comes from William Harvey, who employed teleological
reasoning to uncover the circulation of blood. According to B&T:
"The way in which this respect for
Aristotle was realized in Harvey's works seems to have been in the search for
discernible purpose in the workings of living organisms- indeed, the expectation
of purposeful activity…..he tried to conceive of how a purposeful designer
would have constructed a system of motion."
In a conversation with Robert Boyle, Harvey
explained how he hit upon such an idea as the circulation of blood. He noted the
positioning and shape of the valves in the veins and was
"invited to imagine, that so Provident a
cause as Nature had not so placed many values without Design; and no Design
seem'd more possible than that, since the Blood could not well, because of the
interposing valves, be sent, by the veins to the limbs; it should be sent
through the Arteries and return through the veins."
The success of Harvey (and science) owed much
to design reasoning.
Boyle himself is often considered the father of
modern chemistry and was also a huge proponent of Design. According to B&T:
"It was Robert Boyle who became the most
eloquent expositor and spirited supporter of the 'new' design argument. Boyle
laid emphasis upon specific examples and coincidences of Nature, claiming them
as 'curious' and excellent tokens and effects of divine artifice."
And, more importantly:
"Another original aspect of Boyle's
approach to final causes was his claim that the discovery of features pointing
to design in Nature is promoted principally by experimental science and provides
a strong motivation for these empirical investigations."
Teleology played a crucial role in providing
the motivation for doing science. Recall that the Epicureans disdained mundane
science and contrast this attitude with that of Boyle.
In fact, let's go back to consider something
from another teleologist, the Roman philosopher Boethius (470-525). Boethius
championed the teleologists Socrates and Aristotle at the expense of the Stoics
and Epicureans. In my opinion, he would succinctly capture the essence of the
2500 year old debate:
"Thinkest thou that this world is governed
by haphazard and chance? Or rather doest thou believe that it is ruled by
In my opinion, teleology is its strongest in
this form. Namely, is not the core of reality based on reason? Modern science is
premised on the faith that reality is rational and coherent and it owes this
faith to the teleologists and not the materialists.
In fact, even Kant would recognize the
importance of the Design argument. B&T write:
"He admits great respect for the argument
because of its stimulus to scientific enquiry: he realizes that many biological
investigations have been motivated by the expectation of purpose in organic
Kant writes of Design:
"It enlivens the study of nature…It
suggests ends and purposes, where our observation would not have detected them
by itself, and extends our knowledge of nature by means of the guiding concept
of special unity, the principle of which is outside Nature."
Let me now quote a long portion from B&T
that helps set the context of the current debate:
"Kant's notion of teleology had an
enormouse influence on the work of German biologists in the first half of the
nineteenth century. Like Kant, for the most part these biologists did not regard
teleology and mechanism as polar opposites, but rather as explanatory modes
complementary to each other. Mechanism was expected to provide a completely
accurate picture of life at the chemical level, without the need to invoke
'vital forces.' Indeed, Kant and many of the German biologists were strongly
committed to the idea that all objects in Nature, be they organic or inorganic,
are completely controlled by mechanical physical laws. These scientists had no
objection to the idea that living beings are brought into existence by the
mechanical action of physical laws. What they objected to was the possibility of
constructing a scientific theory, based on mechanism alone, which described that
coming into being, and that could completely describe the organization of
life….In Kant's view, a mechanical explanation…could be given only when
there is a clear separation between cause and effect. In living beings, causes
and effects are inextricably mixed…ultimate biological explanations require a
special non-mechanical notion of causality - teleology - in which each part is
simultaneously cause and effect. Parts related to the whole in this way
transcend mechanical causality."
"The limitation of explanation in terms of
mechanical causality can perhaps be best understood by comparing a living being
to a computer. As Michael Polanyi has pointed out the internal workings of the
computer can of course be completely understood in terms of physical laws. What
cannot be so explained is the computer's program. To explain the program
requires reference to the purpose of the program, that is, to teleology. Even
the evolution of a deterministic Universe cannot be completely understood in
terms of the differential equations which govern evolution. The boundary
conditions of the differential equations must also be specified. These boundary
conditions are not determined by the laws of physics which are differential
B&T then write something that I think
nicely summarizes the where the modern ID movement stands:
"The universal boundary conditions are as
fundamental as the physical laws themselves; they must be included in any
explanation on par with the physical laws."
So What Went Wrong?
If teleological thinking has played such a
crucial role in the formation of modern science, why has it seemingly been
banished? B&T nicely answer this also:
"In spite of such scientific feats, by the
latter part of the nineteenth century the telomechanists had been eclipsed by
the reductionists. The great weakness of the telomechanists was their tendency
to think of teleology not only as a plan of organization but also as an actual
life force, a tendency which Kant warned against. This led them to believe it
was impossible for organisms to change their fundamental plan of organization,
that is, to evolve, under the action of inorganic forces. As a consequence, they
later opposed Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, and as the
evidence for such evolution became overwhelming, they ceased to exert an
influence on the development of biology."
Of course, B&T seem to be confusing
evolution with Darwin's mechanism, as it is simply not true that there is
overwhelming evidence that everything has evolved via variation and natural
selection. But I think they are correct in noting that teleology tied itself
with vitalism and this spelled its demise.
Can It Be Fixed?
The reason I think teleology will eventually
re-assert its position in science is that vitalism is simply not entailed by
teleology no more than pantheism is entailed by monotheism. The modern ID
movement is not simply a religious reaction against Darwinism. Nor is it simply
replaying old failed versions of teleology.
The modern ID movement is heeding Kant's
warning and does think of teleology as a plan of organization and not a vital
life force. The software is just as important as the hardware and the boundary
conditions are just as important as the differential equations. These are valid
insights and are being carried forward by those in the ID movement. For example,
Bill Dembski does not seek out a vital force, he seeks out empirical detectors
of a mind's ability to implement a plan.
I think ID will indeed develop into a very
serious research approach to the extent that it does not tie itself to religious
apologetics or become hyper-skeptical of anything that supports evolution. It
will succeed when two things happen:
1. It becomes clear to many that biology has
long been drawing from teleology to succeed. Although it officially denies
teleology, biology works only because it relies on teleology. The illusion is
that biology's success has been guided by the assumptions of materialism and
Darwinian evolution. Yet materialism cannot justify the constant reference to
intelligent design concepts and language so ubiquitous in biology and Darwinian
evolution is more like icing on a cake than any kind of core ingredient.
2. It will take only a slight nudge to shift
the hidden teleology of biology out into the open. That is, ID researchers can
easily do all that science has done and perhaps more by simply viewing a protein
as a sensor rather than being like a sensor. Science is built upon the faith
that reality is rational and ID can take this faith into the realm of biology,
where thus far, the discovery of the irrational has become the stop point at the
hands of the irrational blind watchmaker.
ID will not win many converts among those
practicing science or philosophy today. That's not typically how things happen.
But when new generations of students begin to appreciate what it means to speak
of the quality control and/or proof reading mechanisms of the cell (for
example), and the manner in which ID is flippantly and arrogantly dismissed by
the establishment, things will change. Materialists have only one hope: to
quickly find a way to teach and study life without ID concepts and language.
Since this hope is likely in vain, ID will probably return as a serious player.
Biologists can say that life is not designed, but as biologists, they treat life
as if it were designed. And sooner or later, people pay more heed to what you
do that what you say.