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The word "telos" in ancient Greek meant: "goal, target, mission, completion, perfection". The Greeks seem to have associated the attaining of a goal with perfection. Modern scientific thought is much less sanguine about teleology, the belief that causes are preceded by their effects. The idea is less zany than it sounds. It was Aristotle who postulated the existence of four types of causes.
It all started with the attempt to differentiate explanatory theories from theories concerning the nature of explanation (and the nature of explanatory theories). To explain is to provoke an understanding in a listener as to why and how something is as it is. Thales, Empedocles and Anaxagoras were mostly concerned with offering explanations to natural phenomena. The very idea that there must be an explanation is revolutionary. We are so used to it that we fail to see its extraordinary nature. Why not assume that everything is precisely as it is because this is how it should be, or because there is no better way (Leibnitz), or because someone designed it this way (religious thought)? Plato carried this revolution further by seeking not only to explain things - but also to construct a systematic, connective epistemology. His Forms and Ideas are (not so primitive) attempts to elucidate the mechanism which we employ to cope with the world of things, on the one hand, and the vessels through which the world impresses itself upon us, on the other hand. Aristotle made this distinction explicit: he said that there is a difference between the chains of causes of effects (what leads to what by way of causation) and the enquiry regarding the very nature of causation and causality. In this text, we will use the word causation in the sense of: "the action of causes that brings on their effects" and causality as: "the relation between causes and their effects".
Studying this subtle distinction, Aristotle came across his "four causes". All, according to him, could be employed in explaining the world of natural phenomena. This is his point of departure from modern science. Current science does not admit the possibility of a final cause in action. But, first things first. The formal cause is why a thing is the type of thing that it is. The material cause is the matter in which the formal reason is impressed.
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The most famous teleological argument is undoubtedly the “design argument” in favour of the existence of God. Could the world have been created by accident? It is ordered to such an optimal extent, that many find it hard to believe. The world to God is what a work of art is to the artist, the argument goes. Everything was created and “set in motion” with a purpose in (God’s) mind. The laws of nature are goal-oriented. It is a probabilistic argument: the most plausible explanation is that there is an intelligent creator and designer of the Universe who, in most likelihood, had a purpose, a goal in mind. What is it that he had in mind is what religion and philosophy (even science) are all about.
A teleological explanation is one that explains things and features while relating to their contribution to optimal situations, or to a normal mode of functioning, or to the attainment of goals by a whole or by a system to which the said things or features belong. Socrates tried to understand things in terms of what good they do or bring about. There are many cases when the contribution of a thing towards a desired result does not account for its occurrence. Snow does not fall IN ORDER to allow people to ski, for instance. But it is different where an intelligent creator is concerned and it can be convincingly shown that he designed and maintained the features of an object to allow it to realize a goal. In such a case, the very occurrence, the very existence of the object are explained by grasping its contribution to the attainment of that goal. An intelligent agent (creator) need not necessarily be a single, sharply bounded, entity. A more fuzzy collective will qualify as long as its behaviour patterns are cohesive and identifiably goal oriented. Thus, teleological explanations could well be applied to organisms (collections of cells), communities, nations and other ensembles.
To justify a teleological explanation, one needs to analyse the function of the item to be explained, on the one hand - and to provide an etiological account, on the other hand. The functional account must strive to explain what the item contributes to the main activity of the system, the object, or the organism, a part of which it constitutes - or to their proper functioning, well-being, preservation, propagation, integration (within larger systems), explanation, justification, or prediction. The reverse should also be possible. Given knowledge regarding the functioning, integration, etc. of the whole - the function of any element within it should be identifiable with its contribution to the functioning whole. Though the practical ascription of goals (and functions) is problematic, it is, in principle, doable. But it is not sufficient. That something is both functional and necessarily so - does not yet explain HOW it happened to have so suitably and conveniently materialized. This is where the etiological account comes in. A good etiological account explains both the mechanisms through which the article (to be explained) has transpired and what aspects of the structure of the world it was able to take advantage of in its preservation, propagation, or functioning. The most famous and obvious example is evolution. The etiological account of natural selection deals both with the genetic mechanisms of transfer involved and with the selection mechanisms. The latter bestow upon the organism with the feature to be explained a better chance of reproducing (than the one possessed by the featureless specimen).
But in all this discussion, it would seem that a goal necessarily implies the existence of an intent aimed at achieving it. A lack of intent leaves only one course of action available: automatism. Any action taken without an evident intent is, by definition, an automatic action. The converse is also true: automatism prescribes the existence of a sole possible mode of action, a sole possible Nature. With an automatic action, no choice is available, no degrees of freedom, nor freedom of action. Automatic actions are, ipso facto, deterministic. But both statements may be false. Surely we can conceive of a goal-oriented act behind which there is no intent of the first or second degree. An intent of the second degree would be the intent of the programmer as enshrined and expressed in a software application, for instance. An intent of the first degree would be the intent of the same programmer which directly led to the composition of said software. House pets act. They are goal oriented (food, drink, etc.). Are they possessed of a conscious, directional, volition (=intent)? Many philosophers argued against such a supposition. Moreover, sometimes end results and by products are mistaken for goals. Is the goal of things to fall down? Gravity is a matter of the structure of space-time. When we roll a ball down a slope (which is really what gravitation is all about, according to the General Theory of Relativity) - is its goal to rest at its bottom? evidently not. But other natural processes are much less evident. Natural processes are considered to be witless reactions. No intent can be attributed to them because no intelligence can be ascribed to them. This is true but only at times.
Intelligence is hard to come by or to define. Still, the most comprehensive approach would be to describe it as the synergetic sum of a host of mental processes (some conscious, some not). These mental processes are concerned with information: its collection, its accumulation, classification, inter-relation, association, analysis, synthesis, integration, and all other possibilities of processing and manipulation. But is this not what natural processes are all about? And if nature is the sum total of all natural processes - aren't we forced to admit that nature is (intrinsically, inherently, of itself) intelligent? The intuitive reaction to these suggestions is bound to be negative. When we use the term “intelligence”, we seem not to be concerned with any kind of intelligence - but with intelligence that is separate from and external to what has to be explained. If both the intelligence and the item that needs explaining are members of the same set - we tend to disregard the intelligence as "natural" and, therefore, irrelevant.
Moreover, not everything that is created by an intelligence (however "relevant", or external) is intelligent in itself. Some automatic products of intelligent beings are inanimate and non-intelligent. On the other hand, as any Artificial Intelligence buff would confirm, automata can become intelligent, having crossed a certain quantitative or qualitative level of complexity. The weaker form of this statement is that, beyond a certain quantitative or qualitative level of complexity, is it impossible to tell the automatic from the intelligent. Is Nature automatic, intelligent, or in the seam between automata and intelligence?
Nature contains everything and, therefore, contains intelligences. That which contains intelligence is not bound to be intelligent, unless the intelligences contained are functional determinants of the container. Quantum mechanics (rather, its Copenhagen interpretation) implies that this, precisely, is the case. Intelligent, conscious, observers determine the very existence of subatomic particles, the constituents of all matter-energy. Human (intelligent) activity determines a lot of the shape, contents and functioning of the habitat Earth. If other intelligent races populate the universe, this could be the rule, rather than the exception. Jewish mysticism believes that humans have a major role: fixing the results of a cosmic catastrophe, the shattering of the divine vessels through which the infinite divine light poured forth to create our finite world. If Nature is determined to a predominant extent by its contained intelligences – it must be teleological. Indeed, goal oriented behaviour (or that could be explained as such) is its hallmark. The question whether these automatic or intelligent mechanisms are at work, really deals with an underlying issue, that of consciousness. Are these mechanisms self-aware, introspective? Is intelligence possible without such self-awareness, without the understanding of what it is doing?
Kant’s dynamic antinomies (the third and the fourth) deal with this apparent duality: automatism versus intelligent acts. The third thesis relates to causation which is the result of free will as opposed to causation which is the result of the laws of nature (nomic causation). The antithesis is that freedom is an illusion and everything is pre-determined. So, the third antinomy is really about intelligence that is intrinsic to Nature (deterministic) versus intelligence that is extrinsic to it (free will). The fourth thesis deals with a related subject: God, the ultimate intelligent creator. It states that there must exist, either as part of the world or as its cause – a Necessary Being. There are compelling arguments to support both the theses and the antitheses of the antinomies. The opposition in the antinomies is not analytic (no contradiction is involved) – it is dialectic. A method is chosen of answering a certain type of questions that generates another question of the same type. “The unconditioned”, the final answer, that logic demands, is, thus, never found and endows the antinomy with its disturbing power. Both thesis and antithesis seem true. Perhaps it is the fact that we are constrained by experience that entangles us in these intractable questions. The fact that the causation involved in free action is beyond possible experience does not mean that the idea of such a causality is meaningless. Experience is not the best guide in other respects, as well. An effect can be caused by many causes or many causes can lead to the same effect. Analytic tools – rather than experiential ones – are called for to expose the “true” causal relations (one cause-one effect). Experience also involves mnemic causation rather than the conventional kind. In the former, the proximate cause is composed not only of a current event – but also of a past event. Richard Semon said that mnemic phenomena (such as memory), entail the postulation of engrams or intervening traces. The past cannot have a direct effect without such mediation. Russel, on the other hand, rejected this and did not refrain from engaging in what effectively turned out to be action at a distance. This is not to mention backwards causation. A confession is perceived by many to annul past sins. This is the Aristotelian teleological causation. A goal generates a behaviour. A product of Nature develops as a cause of a process which ends in it (a tulip and a bulb).
Finally, the distinction between reasons and causes is not sufficiently developed to really tell apart teleological from scientific explanations. Both are relations between phenomena ordained in such a way so that other parts of the world are effected by them. If those effected parts of the world are conscious beings (not necessarily rational or free) – then we have reasons. But are reasons causal? At least, are they concerned with items which are the causes of what is explained? There is a myriad of answers to these questions. Even the phrasing: “Are reasons causes ?” – is not universally acceptable as a non-misleading choice of words. Mental causation is a foggy subject, to put it mildly. Perhaps the only safe thing to say would be that cause and goal need not be confused. One is objective (and, in most cases, material), the other mental. A person can act to achieve some future thing but it is not a future cause that generates his actions as an effect. The immediate causes absolutely precede them. It is the past that he is influenced by, a past in which he formed a VISION of the future. The contents of mental imagery are not subject to the laws of physics and to the asymmetry of time. The physical world and its temporal causal order are. The argument between teleologists and scientist may, after all, be merely semantic. Where one claims an ontological, REAL status for mental states (reasons) – one is a teleologist. Where one denies this and assigns the mental to the UNREAL department, one is a scientist.