It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?
The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology. In ancient science (or, as it used to be called, natural philosophy), teleology held that things — in particular, living things — had a natural end, or telos, at which they aimed. The acorn, Aristotle said, sprouted and grew into a seedling because its purpose was to become a mighty oak. Sometimes, teleology seemed to imply an intention to pursue such an end, if not in the organism then in the mind of a creator. It could also be taken to imply an uncomfortable idea of reverse causation, with the telos — or ‘final cause’ — acting backwards in time to affect earlier events. For such reasons, teleology was ceremonially disowned at the birth of modern experimental science.
The extraordinary success since then of non-teleological scientific thinking and its commitment to forwards-only ‘mechanistic causation’ would seem to support Bacon’s denunciation of teleology. But it continued to bubble under the surface as a live problem for some, particularly regarding descriptions of life. Immanuel Kant wrote that, when observing a living being, we couldn’t help thinking in teleological terms, and to do so was justified for its scientific usefulness. Even so, he concluded, an ultimately teleological explanation was unauthorised, since we could never know whether it was true or not. Friedrich Engels hailed the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species as the final nail in the coffin for teleology; yet one of Darwin’s admirers felt able to read it nonetheless as confirming a teleological view of life’s development, a position that Darwin himself (mostly) rejected.
The idea that living things had purpose would not go away, and it sparked developments in fields beyond biology itself. Norbert Wiener, in his classic 1948 treatise Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, argued that once artificial systems are engineered to include ‘feedback’ (when the output becomes part of the next input), then we have created a new kind of ‘teleological machine’: a machine that has purpose, just like an organism does. Later, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) argued that moral philosophy had lost its way precisely because it had abandoned Aristotelian teleology — the idea that there was an essential ‘true end’ for a human being, a naturally correct way for a person to flourish. ‘The whole point of ethics,’ MacIntyre wrote, ‘is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end’. If you no longer believe in such a true end, he argued, the whole enterprise lacks rational grounding.