Teleology Important to Science
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 acitvity‰¥Ï..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
"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
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
"Thinkest thou that this world is governed by haphazard and
chance? Or rather doest thou believe that it is ruled by reason?"
In my opinion, teleology is its strongest in this form. Namely,
is 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 structures."
Kant writes of Design:
"It enlivens the study of nature‰¥ÏIt 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
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‰¥Ï.In Kant's view, a mechanical
explanation‰¥Ïcould be given only when there is a clear separation
between cause and effect. In living beings, causes and effects are
inextricably mixed‰¥Ïultimate biological explanations require a
special non-mechanical notion of causality - telelogy - 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 equations."
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."(emphasis added)
So What Went Wrong?
If teleological thinking has played such a crucial role in
the formation of modern science, why has it officially
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 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 may 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
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
to biology's success.
2. It will take only a slight nudge to shift the implicit 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 (for example). 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
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.
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