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.