Re: teleology in terminology

Paul Arveson (
Sat, 8 Aug 1998 08:28:32 -0400

At 6:19 PM -0400 8/6/1998, Loren Haarsma wrote:
>Paul Arveson wrote:
>> I asked whether or not the word 'function' has a teleological
>> connotation in biology, which would be inconsistent under
>> neo-Darwinian theory.
>> I am not satisfied with the responses so far. It seems to me
>> that no matter how sophisticated an organism is, all that a
>> neo-Darwinian description can say is that one organism's genes
>> reproduced more than its alternatives in its given environment.
>> In consistent Darwinian language, there are no 'functions', no
>> 'designs', no intentions, no purposes, no solutions.
>> Things just are what they are.
>> Comments?
>Usage is necessarily imprecise. A word can (properly) have a spectrum
>of connotations, depending upon context. I believe this applies to
>teleological language in biology.
>Here's a related example: (1) Why did I go to the store today? Because
>I wanted to buy some milk. (2) Why does a rock fall when dropped?
>Because the earth's gravitational field exerts a force upon it. In the
>first question and answer, the words "why" and "because" are filled with
>teleological content. In the second exchange, they are practically
>devoid of it. A spectrum of examples can be made between those two.
>In most computer programs, each line of code is specifically written by
>a programmer. Each line of code has a function and a purpose. Some
>computer programs are written indirectly, via genetic or evolutionary
>algorithms. (e.g. "artificial life" programs and some process control
>codes) When we examine these programs, we also try to determine the
>"function" and "purpose" of each line of code. Even though those terms
>have different connotations, depending upon how the code was written, we
>use the same teleological language. We understand the different
>meanings from the context.
>For that reason, we probably won't make much headway in arguing that
>Materialists should abandon teleological language.
I'm not ready to give up yet. I should have focused my question on
philosophy, not biology. Generally working scientists have no qualms
about their use of ordinary language, and are not sensitive to the
philosophical implications. Haarsma gives examples of such usage
above. I agree with him that in ordinary use, there is a 'tacit'
understanding of the meaning from the context.

But philosophy makes progress by pressing for consistency and explicit
precision. When an inconsistency is found, one of the options has to be
abandoned as false, or at least a stalemate has to be declared.

So I ask a philosophical question: is it possible to describe nature
without teleological implications, in a way that is as intelligible as
the descriptions in ordinary language? Has anyone done this in an
extensive article or book?

I am reminded of Francis Schaeffer here; he often accused materialists
of slipping in personal and theistic terms that were not consistent
with their stated world view. This is cheating. Is it possible to
describe life materialistically, without cheating?

Paul Arveson, Code 724, Research Physicist, Signatures Directorate
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division
9500 MacArthur Blvd., West Bethesda, MD 20817-5700
(301) 227-3831