Teleology and Determinism – Concepts Banishing Randomness And Chance From Our Daily Lives

An interesting recent discussion with an old colleague and collaborator from the University of Worcester, Andy Renfree, on the teleology of entropy, got me thinking in a more general way about the concept of teleology and its twin concept determinism. Teleology is defined as the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes, or perhaps more succinctly, it is defined as the description of the doctrine of design or purpose in the material world. Determinism is defined as the doctrine that all events, including human action, are determined by causes regarded as external to the will, and that every for every event, including human action, there exists pre-existing causes for it that could lead to no other event other than the one that is being examined. From a teleological or deterministic perspective, if you look carefully at all human activities, as scientists do, one can explain all human behavior as being caused by prior events or circumstances, and all human creations as being purposive. For example the teleological reason for the existence of a house is to provide shelter for those that live in it. The teleological reason for the sensation of hunger is to ensure that one takes action to ensure one ingests food to allow the requisite energy is available to maintain human essential functions. Every single human action can be explained in a teleological manner with either a bit of logical thought or careful scientific analysis.

This obviously becomes problematical for many folk as it does not allow for the possibility of randomness or chance, denies the capacity for free will, and has the potential to undermine an individual’s sense of personal autonomy, given that this sense of autonomy is underpinned by the perception that they ultimately are in control of their own destinies, and the concepts of teleology and determinism suggest that control of one’s destiny and actions lie in prior events and previous activities that have necessitated a change or a particular action which is be manifested in any action the individual is currently performing, even if often the actions often feel spontaneous rather than planned.

Awareness of these universal concepts can either therefore be liberating or stifling for different folk, depending on their world view and the value they put on their requirement for personal autonomy. It has a positive for folk that do acknowledge it though, in that one cannot excuse chance or randomness for any of one’s actions, and requires one to evaluate each of ones actions in the light of what prior event or events led to them occurring, in a manner that will lead to an improved response to a similar action that occurs at a later stage. Of course this learning or change of behavior would itself be teleological and deterministic. As the old proverb goes – for the want of a nail the shoe was lost, for the want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the message was lost, for want of the message the battle was lost, for the want of a battle the kingdom was lost. Behind, or perhaps one should say before, every event there exists a ‘nail’ that causes it, and life as we know it would not exist if not underpinned by teleology and determinism.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

2 responses to “Teleology and Determinism – Concepts Banishing Randomness And Chance From Our Daily Lives

  • Marvin Edwards

    Rational Determinism

    Determinism makes free will inevitable. Here’s how:

    Many living organisms have evolved a nervous system capable of specialized functions that include sensory input, motor control, memory, imagination, cognition, self-awareness, planning, experimentation, and deliberate choosing.

    Thinking is a process rooted in the physical structure of the nervous system, especially the brain. We know this because injury to specific areas of the brain can disable the corresponding function.

    As a thinking organism interacts with its environment it learns by trial and error. When we first cross a stream we must guess how hard to jump from one rock to the next. Jump too hard or not hard enough and you end up in the water. We choose and we try. The successful choices become habits of muscle memory.

    Choosing is as real as walking. Both are phenomena relying upon the physical structure of the human body, which is a product of evolution within our deterministic universe.

    Some things, like walking or jumping, we have to learn on our own. Many other things are taught by parents, schools, churches, and peers. Later we may re-examine their choices and make our own.

    When making new or difficult decisions on our own, we go through a process of deliberation. We start with uncertainty. Then we consider possible options. We imagine the outcomes of each choice. We may consciously list reasons, perhaps even writing them down. We may examine how thinking of each choice makes us feel. Finally, we make our choice and we act upon it.

    This is called our “will”, because it intends to determine the future in a specific way. And if our choice was our own, and not forced upon us by someone else, then it is called a choice of our own “free will”.

    Again, the mental process of deliberation and choosing are rooted in the reality of our physical, deterministic universe. Our reasons and feelings caused us to make this specific choice, at this specific time, under these specific circumstances. Therefore our choice was “deterministic” and “inevitable”.

    However, we were the final cause of that inevitability. The reasons and feelings were ours, and they could determine nothing on their own. It was only after they informed our will and we acted upon it that they had any impact upon reality.

    Our experience of hearing our own reasoning as we consciously deliberate, and our feeling good or bad due to our unconscious evaluation of one option over another, are real. They are the product of our physical bodies.

    Therefore we cannot dismiss the mental process as some kind of illusion. Thinking is as real as walking. And thinking about more than one option leads to choosing. And that choosing must be happening within our physical minds, because where else could the mind be?

    The process of choosing determines our will. Our will determines our action. And our actions determines what inevitably comes next. And what comes next may be as simple as having chocolate rather than vanilla or as significant as raising the temperature of the planet.

    But when people hear that they have no free will, or that they are not responsible for anything, it can lead to a sense of fatalism and apathy. The belief that determinism means free will is an illusion is irrational. The belief that free will means that determinism is an illusion is equally irrational. The fact is that both are quite real, and only the belief that they are somehow in conflict is an illusion.

    In summary, to say that free will is merely an illusion is a lie. Free will is us choosing, and us choosing is a product of the physical and deterministic universe — which means that free will is an inevitable product of our deterministic universe.

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