Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Return of Teleology

7/26/2014—When I got to New York City on vacation last week, I ran into a shock—-an op-ed in the New York Times by George Johnson describing new thinking about the nature of reality (Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space). Simply put, it is now being considered by some really smart people that there might be more to what is real than simple materialism and empiricism allow. Two such approaches are teleology and mathematics.

In terms of teleology, Johnson cites in particular Thomas Nagel and Stuart Kauffman—persons readers of this blog are familiar with—and David Chalmers. The basic idea is that mind, consciousness, is built into the universe, either as goal or ingredient.

The other non-purely-physical approach is that of Max Tegmark, who suggests that mathematics itself provides a kind of blueprint for reality—an idea that I have seen in Hilary Putnam. Putnam wrote somewhere that we are justified in calling mathematics real by the success of natural science in using mathematics to explain and predict the world.

The reason this op-ed excited me is that once ideas get into the New York Times, those ideas must be penetrating the culture quite deeply. So, the scientific viewpoint—space/time/matter/energy—that Steven Smith rightly identified as the viewpoint of at least law’s elite, is now coming into question. And that view—that reality is blind forces—is the foundation of nihilism.

Maybe, we are moving to a new beginning.


  1. Teleology, aka the biologist's mistress, has been back for quite some time now. It first appears in cybernetics and the complexity sciences and now is receiving a full, naturalistic explanation with biosemiotics. But "mind" is not an ingredient or goal. Mind-like processes emerge co-extensively with life insofar as biological systems use signs to negotiate their environments purposefully. "Consciousness" is not the same thing as "mind." I think of consciousness as the ability to observe the body's processes; it's an additional sense, like sight or hearing.

  2. We've been down this road so many times before. You can dress up wishful thinking however you like, but it's still wishful thinking (at its best). At its worst, it is a power play. Just remember that great teleologist, Hegel, admiring Napoleon as he rode into Jena.

  3. Teleology is indeed making a strong comeback, but there is a long and difficult climb ahead.

    The good news is that most Biologists, despite an education that strictly forbids teleology, fully accept that all of life's thoughts, actions and forms are 100% teleological. There are no possible exceptions.

    The bad news is that many laypersons and politicians associate teleology with creationism and biblical literalism. Attempts to get religious beliefs taught in public school has the effect of entrenching public backlash, causing people who fully accept teleology to fight it strongly.

    The media love to make it seem as if there are only the two extremes: biblical creationism and Darwinism.

    Life is clearly intelligent. Overwhelming evidence supports this. That's why eventually teleology will come out on top.