Saturday, July 2, 2011

Teleonomy and teleology

The big problem that Darwinists face in explaining life without design is this: living things are loaded with stuff that is obviously designed. The  genetic code, intricate nanotechnology so sophisticated that we are nowhere near understanding it, let alone replicating it, let alone explaining how it came to be without an agent intelligence. Not only does Darwinism have no explanation for most of this, but the Darwinist presupposition is that there can't be any purpose or direction in living things. Philosophically, Darwinsts are precluded from explaining design in life. It's a real bind for them.

From the theist perspective, this design can be explained as teleology.

Teleology, a concept first studied in depth by Aristotle, is the directedness of natural change. It constitutes what we think of as the regularity of nature. Things fall down, not up. Sparks cause fire, not ice. The heart beats, it doesn't make bile.

Aristotle understood teleology to be essential to nature-- part of its most basic fabric. In fact, he called it the "cause of causes"-- the property of nature without which nothing makes sense. Nothing in nature makes sense except in light of teleology.

Most people who think about teleology immediately think of God, Who directs nature. Interestingly, Aristotle did not think that teleology was evidence for God, although Aristotle did believe that God exists and that His existence can be proven (the Prime Mover argument).

Aquinas and many others do believe that teleology implies God's existence. This was Aquinas' Fifth Way of demonstrating that God exists. Aquinas put it this way: "an arrow directed to a target implies an archer."

It's important to note that the classical philosophers did not associate teleology with complexity. Any directed change in nature was teleological, even the simplest, was teleological. In this view, an electron circling an atom is no less teleological than the genetic code in DNA.

Up to modern times, people have tended to understand teleology in one of two ways: intrinsic teleology and extrinisc teleology.

Intrinsic teleology is the classic Aristotelian/Thomist teleology, an inherent tendency for directedness in each thing.

Extrinsic teleology is the view that directedness is imposed on a thing from without. Extrinsic teleology often invokes complexity as evidence. Paley's watchmaker argument is a classic extrinsic teleology argument.

A very interesting debate has arisen in ID circles about the relative merit of these views of teleology.  As one might expect, the genuinely interesting debate is on the ID side.

So design in life is obvious, and there exists several thousand years of the deepest thinking applied to understanding the nature of this design.

If you're a Darwinist, what do you do?

You have to deny the reality of design, because you're an atheist and a materialist, and your whole worldview depends on denial. Ideology is what drives your science. How do you accomodate apparent design and the massive literature explaining it?

Your answer: make up a theory of directness in nature that precludes agent intelligence, and give it a name that makes it sound plausible.

Enter teleonomy.

Teleonomy is Darwinian teleology.  It doesn't explain design. It explains it away.

Here's a nice summary of evolutionary pioneer Ernst Mayr's views on teleonomy by Allen MacNeill, a biology professor at Cornell:
Mayr concludes:

• The use of so-called teleological language by biologists is legitimate; it neither implies a rejection of physico-chemical explanation nor does it imply non-causal explanation

The use of teleological language in biology isn't 'legitimate'. It's indispensible. The heart pumps. Flagella are for locomotion. Kinases bind. Since Darwin's theory is supposed to eliminate teleology from biology, the continuing indispensiblity of teleology to understand biology is a glaring embarassment to Darwinists. They had two choices:

1) Purge biology of all references to teleology, which would make it incomprehensible and lead to the casting-aside of the Darwinian paradigm.

2) Make up a new word that sounded like teleology, but that could be claimed to do away with it. Since most people won't bother to figure out the philosophical subtilties, the fact that it's gibberish wouldn't matter.

Teleonomy got a foothold.

• At the same time, it is illegitimate to describe evolutionary processes or trends as goal-directed (teleological).
Most natural change manifests directedness, as understood classically.  Recognition of this fact of nature is not "illegitimate". It's merely honest.

The only reason not to admit the obvious directedness of natural change, including evolutionary processes, is if one is protecting an ideology from scrutiny.
Selection [reifies] past phenomena (mutation, recombination, etc.), but does NOT plan for the future, at least not in any specific way [as far as we can tell]

"Selection" doesn't do anything , because selection isn't a mechanism. 'Survivors survive' is a tautology, and tautologies don't 'do' anything.

The actual means by which living things change over time are varied and complex, imperfectly understood, and mostly teleological.

There are no doubt non-teleological events in evolution-- the coincidences that Aristotle called chance (a rock blown by the wind falls on an animal), but most of biological change is teleological, in accordance with natural laws.

• Processes (behavior) whose goal-directedness is controlled by a program may be referred to as teleonomic
A program is a process by which an input is transfrmed into an output in a consistent way. That is a manifestly teleological process. There is no reason to invoke "teleonomic", unless you are just making up a word to avoid the philosophical implications of teleology.

• Processes which reach an end state caused by natural laws (e.g. gravity, second law of thermodynamics) but not by a program may be designated as teleomatic

Natural laws are teleological. There's no reason to make up another word-- teleomatic-- unless you're afraid that people will see the motive behind your previous neologism.
• Programs [of the type described above] are in part or entirely the product of natural selection

Tautologies (e.g. natural selection) don't produce anything. Natural change produces things, and natural change is teleological.

• Teleonomic (i.e. programmed) behavior occurs only in organisms (and man-made machines) and constitutes a clear-cut difference between the levels of complexity in living and in inanimate nature [i.e. they are “emergent properties” of living systems, not present in the non-living materials of which living organisms or their artifacts are composed]
Even Darwinists in the midst of a torrent of neologisms can't deny the inference to design ("occurs only in organisms (and man-made machines" ). It's funny to watch.
• Teleonomic explanations are strictly causal and mechanistic. They give no comfort to adherents of vitalistic concepts [including supporters of “intelligent design,” if such supporters believe that the kinds of programs desctibed above come into existence as the result of a purposeful process]

The distinction between teleology and purpose is subtle, and has been the subject of much debate. Biology is teleological, and obvious manifests purpose. Parts of living things are for something (circulation, locomotion, excretion, etc). Whether that obvious purpose and teleology proves intelligent agency is a matter of debate. Darwinists elide the real debate by wordplay.

• The heuristic value of the teleological Fragestellung makes it a powerful tool in biological analysis, from the study of the structural configuration of macromolecules up to the study of cooperative behavior in social systems.

Teleological understanding isn't merely a powerful tool in biology.

Nothing in biology mades sense except in light of evolution teleonomy teleology.

Ed Feser is a philosopher who writes on teleology, and many other philosophical topics, with exceptional clarity. I highly recommend his books, and his blog.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Egnor, for this crystal clear explanation of the failings of Darwinism.

    I frequently wonder why Darwinists fail to recognized design. It is so obvious, even the blind can see it!

    Professor Richard Lewontin said it all:

    We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

    It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

    Conclusion: so long as God is out of the picture, it is true that 1 + 1 = 3, for very large value of 1!

  2. To sum up: I, the almighty Egnor, cannot explain it. Nobody else seems to be able to explain it to my satisfaction. Therefore, goddidit!

    Such weak argumentation. I can't believe you are actually a neurosurgeon.

  3. To Anonymous:

    You can recognize and accept design and try to reverse engineer it or you can continue believing in unsubstantiated just-so stories as Lewontin said.

  4. Anonymous says:
    Such weak argumentation. I can't believe you are actually a neurosurgeon.

    So says the '< paragraph' kid.
    Why not change your nic from 'anonymous' to 'ad hominem'.

  5. Michael, it is a very nice post! I will link mine to yours. I have a blog on ID which is called "ID Thoughts". Your comments are welcome.

  6. Another comment. This note got me thinking :) I believe, inanimate nature is non-teleological. At least, it is arguable if we can scientifically demonstrate it is (one pointer is the strong anthropic principle which is a big question). I believe it is not demonstrable because to prove it we must step out of our reality and replicate it somehow. So it is beyond the demarkation line.

    Physicality is inert to purpose, in David Abel's words. At least as far as science can tell. Obviously some "higher order" teleology is there but we can only see it through the eyes of faith. Scientifically detectable teleology is present in two categories of things: biosystems and complex artefacts (artificial information processing systems). Based on which ID goes on to infer design in biosystems.

  7. A mostly well-researched, well-reasoned, and well-written position statement. I use the qualifier "mostly" because it is less philosophy (and this seems to be what it presents itself as) than it is theology. Speaking only from a position on logic, the arguments are valid, but they are written from a subject position contra Darwinism. It will appeal to those who are also looking for "evidence" against Darwinism. Unfortunately, it does not further the larger conversation about origins (I hesitate to use the word "evolution" because that also betrays an inherent subject position against theistic or ID explanations). This conversation only adds to the construction of an abstract, intellectual foundation against the evolutionary position (and I do use "evolution" intentionally here). So, while admirable for its clarity, it concerns me because it may only reduce circumscribe thinking creative thinking, both among ID thinkers and evolutionary thinkers, as each tries to counter the other in an ideological thrust and parry. As I find more and more, too many are too certain of what they think they "know" and not certain enough that they "know" not.

  8. “living things are loaded with stuff that is obviously designed”.
    Starting an article with a logical fallacy of begging the question is an interesting approach !

    Until the existence of design is demonstrated, questions as to the origin are moot.

    “Darwinists are precluded from explaining design in life.”
    This misses the point – until there is evidence for something, why should a scientific theory attempt to explain it ?

    What Scientists observe is the APPEARANCE of design. And that is exactly what Darwinian evolution predicts !! We observe what we expect to see, and what the theory predicts !!

    The logic used by the ID / Creationist is :
    1) Bananas are yellow.
    2) That is yellow
    3) Therefore it is a banana.

    See the problem ? But if you apply it to (the appearance of) “design”
    1) Objects that are designed, APPEAR to be designed
    2) That object APPEARS to be designed
    3) Therefore it IS designed
    Spot the logical fallacy problem ?

    Appearance of something CANNOT be conflated with the object itself !! It is fundamental to the argument – and by ignoring it ID falls into the begging the question logical fallacy trap.

    Until and unless you can demonstrate ACTUAL design, (which no one even yet has a method for , so by definition there is no evidence), the whole topic is at best philosophical – and to a scientist – pointless, while we have actual evidence that DOES need investigating and explaining.

  9. Evolution is readily explained by non-equilibrium thermodynamics (the evolution of complexity via energy gradients producing localized order whilst increasing total entropy). It is admittedly far more complicated than the neo-Darwinian model which is merely a rough adumbrarion of much deeper principles. A tour of physics, philosophy, mathematics and computer science (especially cellular automata) may elucidate the neo-Darwinian model and why it is so widely accepted despite being a non-obvious and confusing idea when divorced from its proper context. The distinction between teleology and teleonomy is highly useful for reasons beyond the ontological; that is, regardless of whether or not a creator intended a definitive "final state" of system S at time t+n, we observe biological and computational systems with dynamical utilities (ever-changing goals or desired states/configurations in response to non-linear environments) contained therein. Teleonomy acknowledges "purpose" or utility-directedness with a sensitivity to spatiotemporal / environmental context, rather than making a stronger ontological claim about the process. Even within the framework of the ID you espouse, the teleology-teleonomy distinction is a highly useful one with respect to timescales and the emergence of intelligent life. I suggest learning more about the physics that drive neo-Darwinian evolution before stating your argument so strongly...there's a difference between being on the right or wrong side of an argument and looking foolish for not knowing the relevant details of your own position. That is not to say that I support ID (I obviously do not) but rather that it is the hubris and narrowness of these arguments that does much disservice to deep thinkers with more respectable formulations of your thesis. I realize this original post is old but it is a top google search result for teleonomy so I felt obligated to leave this post here for others who might stumble upon this as I did.

    1. "Evolution is readily explained by non-equilibrium thermodynamics (the evolution of complexity via energy gradients producing localized order whilst increasing total entropy)"

      Order and (functional) complexity are two different things that should not be confused. I agree that if you have a population of self-reproducing organisms, selective pressure (due to resource scarcity) will inevitably cause differential reproduction. However, this cannot explain all observed functional complexity in biological systems. For evolution to even start one needs information translation, which requires the existence of physically arbitrary (energy-degenerate) states of equilibrium. While in inanimate nature no clump of matter is about any other clump of matter, representation (=information translation, code-protocol-interpreter) is everything in biology. Apart from biology, representation happens nowhere except in complex artificial systems. Biology and linguistics are subtly intertwined. This is not seen at the physics level. To be able to see it, one needs to walk up "the stack" to the systems level.

    2. Evgeny, you are right on the mark that non-equilibrium thermodynamics alone is insufficient if our goal is to provide a reductive scientific account of the explanandum. The ID proponent is not attempting to offer such a reductive account, but rather arguing that (a) one or more biological systems are "irreducibly complex" (i.e. exhibit downward causation) or (b) even if everything we observe is indeed possible in principle, a naturalistic framework is so *improbable* as to infer fine-tuning. The former has been largely put to rest in the literature and the latter deals with probability distributions about which we know nothing, thus calling Bayes theorem to the stand: If (1) the history of science has thus far elucidated each and every mystery with elegance & parsimony and (2) we have computational systems that actually exhibit the phenomenon in question before our very eyes (revealing the subvenient regularities), then we should place very high credence in the proposition that further inquiry will reveal the anthropic principle to be (statistically) sufficient to account for abiogenesis given the calculated number of hospitable planets and the relevant time frame. Of course, we must still assign a non-zero credence to ID, but it is not on equal footing in the way its proponents claim. (Note that this argument is inapplicable to cosmological fine-tuning in my view, and should be restricted only to phenomena within the observable universe... We enter different philosophical terrain when we depart from empirical observation and I am highly sympathetic to fine-tuning.)