The existence of teleology (from telos, Greek for end or purpose) is a controversial issue in the study of nature. The Scientific Revolution succeeded in rendering the notion disreputable, largely by ridiculing its abuses and ignoring its strengths.
A big obstacle for moderns to believe in natural purpose is the flattening of language that's occurred since the so-called Enlightenment. Words nowadays mean only one thing (or at least that's the popular perception) and have lost much of their flexibility. Gone are analogous senses of words. Mariano Artigas, in The Mind of the Universe, goes a long distance to rehabilitating teleology for the modern mind by helpfully distinguishing four senses or levels. Each higher level presupposes all the lower levels and adds something new. Figure 4.2 (p. 126) summarizes what he explains at greater length in the text:
- END of a PROCESS
"The End" of a film, of a journey, of an exam.
Final stages of any process
- GOAL of a TENDENCY
Attractive or repulsive physical forces
Multiple tendencies of living beings
- VALUE for a SUBJECT
Something good or bad for the subject who acts
- PURPOSE of a PLAN
There are known aims and designs
On the first level, teleology refers to the "end" of a "process." Sometimes we can distinguish particular stages in a process and consider the conclusion of any one of them as an end. We can speak about ends in a spatial sense, but when we talk about teleology we are primarily interested in the ends of processes that develop in time. This meaning of "end" is at the same time something real and completely neutral from a philosophical point of view. However, it is a necessary component of the remaining three levels.
The second level contains a stronger finalist meaning, as it refers to the "goal" of a "tendency." This meaning presupposes the first and adds something, the existence of a tendency toward a determined end. This is no longer a neutral issue from the scientific or philosophical points of view, and it poses two problems: how we can determine the existence of tendencies and how we can explain them.
On the third level a new qualification is introduced: we say that particular ends have a "value" for some "subject." Here, "value" means something is convenient or inconvenient, good or bad, for a particular subject or kind of subject. Discussions about teleology sooner or later refer to values.
These three levels exist in both natural and human activity. But on the fourth level there is a new kind of teleology that belongs only to the purposeful activity of intelligent beings: to reach a "purpose" as a consequence of a "plan." This is the level on which we can properly speak of purposeful actions and of design.
Intelligent purposeful action is teleological because, by its very nature, it is directed toward something that can be considered to be the end of the action. This end is a goal, as far as it is reached as the result of a tendency, and is also a value, because otherwise the subject would not desire it. Natural activities are not so clearly teleological because it may be difficult to determine whether they are directed toward determinate goals, and because it may be even more difficult to determine whether these goals, if they exist, can be considered real values.
The problem of natural teleology has a double aspect: first to determine whether natural tendencies toward goals that can be considered values exist, and then, if these goals exist, to determine whether they require the existence of some intelligent plan that governs the activity of nature.
But to return to teleology in nature, a paper by John Keck, the director of the Institute for the Study of Nature, recently published in The Thomist discusses the natural teleologies in the laws of physics. The introduction observes that physics necessarily deals with teleology (on Artigas's level 2): "In book 2 of the Physics, Aristotle establishes that nature's obvious regularities—its tendency to act in particular ways (which itself maintains the good of the cosmic order)—reveal an ordering to specific ends. That things happen 'always or for the most part' indicates finality or purpose." The paper continues,
The only alternative to purpose is chance and, although chance events often obtain, the natural world is inherently teleological. Scientific laws, modern and ancient, physical, chemical, and biological, capture nature's regularities and im-plicitly testify to teleology. That baking soda and vinegar react expansively, and that confetti is normally attracted to the static electric charge on a balloon show the order and purpose of nature. Far from being opposed to modern science, teleology is its conditio sine qua non. (532-3)
The rest of the paper is devoted to observing how the ends of physics processes constitute values (Artigas's level 3). The main focus is on establishing how gravity and entropy constitute constitute natural motions toward the ends of spatial unity and disunity.
Gravity is the kind of motion that Aristotle describes in book 8 of the Physics as "bring[ing] to actuality the proper activities that [material bodies] potentially possess." It is a natural motion—a natural motion toward physical or spatial unity, a surrender of the masses' separate existences to a greater participation in the transcendental perfection of unity. The more matter they contain, the more they are already united in sharing a sympathy of being, and the more strongly (i.e., with greater force) they are drawn together still. (543)
That the end of entropy is disunity is indisputable in the sense of level-2 teleology, but the conclusion seems forced with regard to level 3: to what extent can disunity be considered a good? Instead I think that Dr. Keck would be better to observe that matter as such need not tend toward a good, because matter, insofar as it is matter, has no perfections (I speak of matter in the Aristotelian sense here). Matter is closely allied with the notion of the infinite (both are privations of form or limit), so it would make sense that matter as such would tend "toward" boundlessness (cf. Physics III.7.207b35-208a4). Other than that complaint, I can find nothing to disagree with.
The paper also also mentions that "On the level of individual charges, the action of electro-magnetic forces tends toward the natural end of (electrical) charge neutrality" (542).
That physical matter (mass-energy) has ends constitutes a continuity with the living world. Once life is constituted (however that happens), the preservation of the organismic configuration of matter becomes a value for the organism. As Hans Jonas writes,
[L]iving things are creatures of need. Only living things have needs and act on needs. Need is based both on the necessity for the continuous self-renewal of the organism by the metabolic process, and on the organism's elemental urge thus precariously to continue itself. This basic self-concern of all life, in which necessity and will are bound together, manifests itself on the level of animality as appetite, fear, and all the rest of the emotions. The pang of hunger, the passion of the chase, the fury of combat, the anguish of flight, the lure of love—these, and not the data transmitted by the receptors, imbue objects with the character of goals, negative or positive, and make behavior purposive. the mere element of effort lifts bodily activity out of the class of mechanical performance, and the fact that movement requires effort means that an animal will move only under the incentive of an interest.
... The organism has to keep going, because to be going is its very existence—which is revocable—and, threatened with extinction, it is concerned in existing. There is no analogue in the machine to the instinct of self-preservation—only to the latter's antithesis, the final entropy of death. (126)
As a matter of fact, every part of an organism is united in the effort to survive, and I think it's safe to say that this unity of effort is what defines their unity of form.
But the question of how to move from level 3 to level 4, that is, how to go from animal life to rational life, remains to be seen. Jonas points to the human capacity for image making, which is closely related to the sense of sight.
Some sort of disengagement from the causality of the encounter [with the sensible object] provides the neutral freedom for letting the "other" appear for itself. (The organization of our senses assures this disengagement in advance.) In that appearance the affective basis ("stimulation," "irritation") is canceled, its record neutralized....
Vision, of all senses, most conspicuously realizes in its normal performance this double feat of "abstraction": setting off the self-contained object from the affective condition of sensing, and upholding its identity and unity across the whole range of its possible transformations of appearance, each of which is already an integrated simultaneous manifold. (168-9)
Sight and the image-making capacity share in disengagement from their object. At last month's ISN Summer Conference, Lenny Moss gave an outstanding keynote address that showed how the concept of detachment permeates nature from human beings down to the lowliest bits of matter. Detachment is "is a measure of the relative independence of an entity from a larger milieu—its ability to resist the forces of thermal or other kinds of winds." As entities ascend the hierarchy of being, they become more detached from their environment. With mounting being and detachment, an entity acquires the ability to carry a history. "To have a history requires the ability of an entity to buffer itself against random perturbations, or perhaps even to set its own agenda as to how it will receive and respond to stimuli from without." (It's not hard to see how Moss's scheme allows for free will.)
Similarly, notice that each of Artigas's levels of teleology is at a greater remove from the subject of the telos. The end of a process is simply part of the process. The goal of a tendency is a future part of regular process. A value for a subject is hypothetical or possible future part of a process. The purpose of a plan is possible future part of an intelligent subject's activity.
Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe, (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 126-127.
John W. Keck, "The Natural Motion of Matter in Newtonian and Post-Newtonian Physics," The Thomist 71 (October 2007), 529-54. [The URL works at present, but may change soon.]
Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001/1966).
Lenny Moss, "Detachment, Genomics and the Nature of Being Human," ISN Summer Conference 2008 (June 13, 2008). [published proceedings planned]