The double truth about teleology

Truth does not contradict truth but rather is consistent with it and bears witness to it. (Averroes, Decisive Treatise)

Beyond teleology

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of species is the victim of a major misunderstanding, as it happens for Karl Marx’s theory of history. Neither Marx nor Darwin meant to make such a point as the final cause; but this is exactly what their philosophical legacy is all about: Marxism and Spencer’s Darwinism. The misunderstanding is, of course, the reason for the great success of these theories: in the age of positivism, nothing would fit better than the idea of a scientific foundation of the ideology of progress. That is to say: species become better and better; or: mankind is destined to a perfect society. Now, the word itself – evolution – is contaminated by the connotation of progress. That was not what Darwin intended. But what if this misunderstanding were only the echo of a deep ambiguity in these theories? And what if this ambiguity were about to reveal something about the role of teleology (final cause) in a scientific world – or the other way round, of strictly casual mechanisms in a theological world?

Darwin’s program is to give an explanation of order without teleology, so as to explain the emergence of complex living systems leaving aside any final or formal cause[1]. Darwin’s world is a scientific world, a world of efficient causes (and material causes, to end up with the Aristotelian taxonomy). So where is the contradiction – where is the ambiguity – the very origin of the misunderstanding? The fact is that the shape of the evolution, this purposeless movement from disorder to order, appears perfectly finalised. Then, here is the ambiguity: is Darwin giving us an alternative to finalism, or is he building up a theory that explains how finalism work? For the moment we can just say that evolutionary processes may not be teleological, but still it’s what they appear to be. These processes are not ruled by any final cause, but work just as if they were. But actually does the distinction between “appearing” and “being” give any sense from a non-metaphysical point of view?

For Science, every supposed teleological system has to be substituted by a deterministic mechanism appearing to be teleological; i.e., reduced to his deterministic terms. In fact, teleology is a forbidden passage for scientists. This is because teleology is not an explanation, but the very opposite of an explanation: it’s the exhibition of a black hole in knowledge. As summarized by Jacques Monod in his Postulate of objectivity[2], a finalistic model is not a scientific model, but an illicit metaphysic projection. This has been a great problem in biology: how should living intelligent organisms be explained without considering their purposes? So, in the famous words of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her – but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public”. This is an even bigger problem in our whole vision of the world: do we need to disenchant our perception from all finalistic projections, and accept that reality is only matter? Is it at least possible?

Pushing materialism further

That wouldn’t be the right choice; and it would be hypocrite because, of course, deterministic world is not the world we’re living in – it’s a theoretical construction. For Science the refusal of finalism is not a conclusion, but a premise[3]. Science is not supposed to explain why teleology is unacceptable, because teleology is the very limit which officiates at its foundation – by definition. Natural philosophers of the Antiquity, the first scientists, already claimed their work was to study causality. That’s why, in some way, Darwinian criticism of natural teleology is a sophism, an epistemological trompe-l’oeil. Scientists has plenty of good reasons to say that evolution is deterministic and not teleological (and they are perfectly right), but they have to go further. For example, by giving their opinion on human intelligence. The fact is that, of course, Science deals with a world without ends. This is true not only for the evolution of species, but for any other system appearing to be teleological that common sense considers finalistic.

Science, for instance, can show us that intelligence is a complete deterministic mechanism, even if it seems intentional. If these are the terms, there is no cognition. It seems impossible – by definition, again – to call “cognition” something which is not intentional (that’s why we don’t say that computers are intelligent). It has been clearly expressed by Paul Smolensky, while working on his reductionist approach of artificial intelligence: “A necessary condition for a dynamical system to be cognitive is that, under a wide variety of environmental conditions, it maintains a large number of goal conditions”[4]. If this is not so, cognition is only an appearance, and that is exactly the point in the connectionist (sub-symbolic) criticism of symbolic paradigm in the cognitive sciences. Instead of operating on symbols, the main idea of connectionism is operating under the symbols, with smaller units (sub-symbols) with no semantic value. Briefly, a sub-symbolic model tears apart the unity of the symbolic cognitive process, exceeding every teleological model of what we call intelligence, breaking every semantic or referencing relation. Here the key-notion is implementation: it is possible to implement (i.e., realize) systems appearing to be teleological (cognition) on pure deterministic matter (meaningless atoms: the sub-symbols). Still, any materialistic account of the process (made from the postulate of objectivity) will refuse teleology as pure illusion.

Then, how can materialists claim that there is no intelligent design in nature, if the very concept of intelligence is unacceptable? The arguments used by darwinists against the idea of natural teleology can be used for an integral deconstruction of what we mean with human being: it ends up with the idea that we can do without God, but we have to do also without Man. This is an hard truth, and will scare some “common sense darwinists”, who are not yet ready for so much. But if they’re not ready themselves to stop believing in something outside matter, how can they expect believers to do that?

The double truth: deterministic models and teleological models

It seems obvious that even if Science can give us a perfect explanation of how things work, it is not a good reason to stop representing systems appearing to be teleological as finalistic, if this way of representing still work. Most of the time, this is the simplest model. Pretending that an act is intentional is still the best way to make hypothesises about human behaviour. The same is true for social tendencies: even if we know that society has no will, and that the whole movement is randomly determined by individuals, a more distant vision can be clearer and reveal us the meaning and the direction of the process. And, of course, it can be useful to analyze the “Intelligent Design” that is being implemented by the natural selection.

What we need here is a clear epistemological splitting. This is already happening: cybernetics and general systems theory claim the value of reductionism but suggests that there are some pattern emerging that can be studied with other instruments. Social sciences are studying the emergence of “swarm intelligence” in complex interactions. Artificial intelligence is showing that meanings can be inscribed on matter: there is hardware and there is software. This splitting means that there have to be two levels of model-making: on one side, determinism; on the other, teleology. For believers it means: there is a scientific truth; and there is also a religious truth, in which things have a meaning and a direction outside the matter. Sub-symbolic and symbolic. More and more, contemporary relativist epistemology is updating the old medieval discussion about the “double truth”, the averroist doctrine condemned in 1277[5] (the idea that there are two different levels – Revelation and Reason – of understanding reality). The double truth about teleological systems is that they can be represented both as deterministic and finalistic. The problem of what they really are is just metaphysical.

To sum up, Darwinism is not a confutation of natural teleology – it just gives a materialist explanation of systems appearing to be teleological. It does it not as a conclusion, but because it’s the only explanation that Science can give. Nevertheless, systems appearing to be teleological can be represented as teleological, shifting to another level of analysis, because of their shape.

Teleological models are used in many fields of knowledge (psychology, economy, law, history and so on) and the refusal of neo-darwinists to accept that  other models can also “operate as true” (in their own field) is rather atheist militancy than scientific rigour. If natural selection is implementing some order, why calling “God” the immaterial principle of this order would be an error? Maybe, just an old-fashioned form of eccentricity. Of course, believers can dislike that their victory on materialism was made in the name of methodological relativism.

Raffaele Ventura

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[1] Thus, the form – the essence – is subsequent to the existence.

[2] “The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that “true” knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose”. An exact date can be give for the discovery of this canon. The formulation by Galileo and Descartes of the principle of inertia laid the groundwork not only for mechanics but for the epistemology of modern science, by abolishing Aristotelian physics and cosmology. […] Science as we understand it today […] required the unbending stricture implicit in the postulate of objectivity – ironclad, pure, forever undemonstrable. For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the non-existence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end. But the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science; it has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. There is no way to be rid of it, even tentatively or in a limited area, without departure from the domain of science itself.” (J. Monod, Chance and necessity: an essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Vintage Book, New York, 1971, p. 21)

[3] “Even the renowned biologist Jacques Monod, a staunch advocate of scientific materialism, acknowledges that the postulate of objectivity as a condition for true knowledge constitutes what he calls an ethical choice, rather than a matter of fact. This assertion of Monod’s implies that this principle is not the result of research but is rather a premise that guides a certain kind of research while prohibiting other type of research for being conducted” (B. A. Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 22)

[4] P. Smolensky, Putting Together Connectionism — again, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11, 59-74, 1988.

[5] Cf. J. F. Wippel, “The Parisian Condemnations of 1270 and 1277” in J. Gracia and T. Noone, A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p. 65-73.

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