Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Biology and Teleology

It could be argued that one of the key elements in the beginning of what we now call "modernity" was the rejection of the concepts of formal and final cause and thus the rejection of teleology or purpose from what came to be known as science. There were several reasons why modern science rejected teleology:

1. First of all, renaissance thinkers like Francis Bacon were preoccupied with power and they found that analyzing nature with reference only to material and efficient cause allowed them to simplify their investigations and focus only on one aspect of reality at a time. Yet this one focus - on the material and efficient causes of phenomena - eventually allowed researchers to develop a powerful technological science. So teleology proved to be superfluous.

2. But in addition to that, teleology was part of the Christian worldview that saw the whole of physical reality as a unified cosmos and questions of purpose were sometimes answered prematurely on a deductive basis without an openness to empirical confirmation or challenge, especially in Aristotelian science. So teleology tended to get rejected along with Aristotelian biology, which, I would argue, was a throwing out of the proverbial baby with the bath water.

3. By the 19th century there was a strong trend toward applying the model of Newtonian physics to biology and Darwin was the one finally to propose a theory of how to conceptualize this reductionistic approach to life by focusing on material and efficient cause only.

4. In the 20th century, those who wanted to advance atheistic materialism, socialism and the sexual revolution and get rid of God as the source of law in the Western world saw the rejection of teleology as essential to their cause. Thus we see the so-called "new atheism" attempting to argue that since modern science can produce great technology without reference to formal or final causation, therefore we should banish all concepts of purpose from, not only biology, but also law and ethics. Human beings have no telos except what individual will choose for themselves. This is the final degradation of liberalism into nihilism.

In a striking passage from Brave New World, Aldous Huxley pictures the World Controller for Western Europe, Mustapha Mond, making a censorship decision on a biological paper.
"'A New Theory of Biology' was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title page. 'The author's mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.' He underlined the words. 'The author will be kept under supervision. He transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary.' A pity he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose - well, you didn't know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily recondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes - make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstances, admissible. He picked up his pen again, an under the words 'Not to be published' drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed. 'What fun it would be,' he thought, 'if one didn't have to think about happiness!' (Vintage Canada ed. 2007, pp. 154-5)
I would argue that to expel teleology from biology is to make it impossible to understand human beings. In fact it ensures systematic misunderstanding. To reduce humans to matter in motion is to dehumanize them.

For example, when we hear stories about how promiscuity in males is actually a mechanism for natural selection and therefore not to be seen as unnatural or bad, we are witnessing the importing into biology of bad teleology. This is only possible because true teleology has been already ushered out the front door, which enables anti-humanistic teleology to sneak in the back door.

What is going here is an example of the fact that no science can have much to say about its object of study without resorting to teleology. However, in modern biology the arbitrary (philosophical and religious) decision to reduce final cause to material and efficient cause means that the human being is systematically reduced to the level of an animal and thus tragically misunderstood.

In the passage quoted above, it is instructive and significant that Mond does this deliberately. It is not a mistake; it is a crime against humanity rooted in rebellion against God.

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