Biofelsefe — TELOS
NFA 2020 / Aziz Yardımlı



Biofelsefe — TELOS

  • Potizivizm yalnızca telosu yadsımakla kalmaz.
  • Genel olarak nedenselliği yadsır.
  • Ve yalnızca bu kavramları yadsımakla kalmaz.
  • Bir dizge olarak usun bütününü yadsır.
  • Potizivizm kavramsız felsefe yapar.

Telos (W)

Telos (W)

Telos (Greek: τέλος, translit. télos, lit. "end, 'purpose', or 'goal") is a term used by philosopher Aristotle to refer to the full potential or inherent purpose or objective of a person or thing, similar to the notion of an 'end goal' or 'raison d'être. Moreover, it can be understood as the "supreme end of man's endeavour."

Telos is the root of the modern term 'teleology', the study of purposiveness or of objects with a view to their aims, purposes, or intentions. Teleology is central in Aristotle’s work on biology and in his theory of causes. Aristotle's notion that everything has a telos also gave rise to epistemology. It is also central to some philosophical theories of history, such as that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
In general philosophy

In general philosophy

In general philosophy (W)

Telos has been consistently used in the writings of Aristotle, in which the term, on several occasions, denote 'goal'. It is considered synonymous to teleute ('end'), particularly in Aristotle's discourse about the plot-structure in Poetics. The philosopher went as far as to say that telos can encompass all forms of human activity. One can say, for instance, that the telos of warfare is victory, or the telos of business is the creation of wealth. Within this conceptualization, there are telos that are subordinate to other telos, as all activities have their own, respective goals.

For Aristotle, these subordinate telos can become the means to achieve more fundamental telos. Through this concept, for instance, the philosopher underscored the importance of politics and that all other fields are subservient to it. He explained that the telos of the blacksmith is the production of a sword, while that of the swordsman's, which uses the weapon as a tool, is to kill or incapacitate an enemy. On the other hand, the telos of these occupations are merely part of the purpose of a ruler, who must oversee the direction and well-being of a state.


Telos vs techne

Telos vs techne (W)

In contrast, techne is the rational method involved in producing an object or accomplishing a goal or objective; however, the two methods are not mutually exclusive in principle. These are demonstrated in the cases of writing and seeing, as explained by Martin Heidegger: the former is considered a form of techne, as the end product lies beyond (para) the activity of producing; whereas, in seeing, there is no remainder outside of or beyond the activity itself at the moment it is accomplished. Aristotle, for his part, simply designated telos as the consummation or the final cause of techne.


In philosophy of science

In philosophy of science (W)

One running debate in modern philosophy of biology is to what extent does teleological language (i.e., the 'purposes' of various organs or life-processes) remain unavoidable, and when does it simply become a shorthand for ideas that can ultimately be spelled out non-teleologically.

According to Aristotle, the telos of a plant or animal is also "what it was made for" — which can be observed. Trees, for example, seem to be made to grow, produce fruit/nuts/flowers, provide shade, and reproduce. Thus, these are all elements of trees' telos. Moreover, trees only possess such elements if it is healthy and thriving — "only if it lives long enough and under the right conditions to fulfill its potential."


In social philosophy

In social philosophy (W)

Action theory also makes essential use of teleological vocabulary. From Donald Davidson's perspective, an action is just something an agent does with an intention — i.e., looking forward to some end to be achieved by the action. Action is considered just a step that is necessary to fulfill human telos, as it leads to habits.



  Entelekheia/ἐντελέχεια; δύναμις; ενέργεια
  • Hiyerarşi terimi telos imlemez, çünkü hiyerarşi konumsal üstünlük imler.
  • Telos bir gizillik (potansiyel) ve onun gelişimini imler.
  • Mekanik nesnede hiçbir ön-belirlenim yoktur (düzenek dışsal olarak belirlenir).
  • Kimyasal nesnede eğinim ön-belirlenimi vardır (kimyasal bağ).
  • Teleolojik nesnede nesnel-kavramsal ön-belirlenim vardır (tasar olarak yapılanım, erek, causa finalis, telos).


  • Telosun bir Tanrının işi olduğu görüşü Tanrının varoluşuna inanç üzerine dayanır.

Entelechy (B)

Entelechy (B)

Entelechy, (from Greek entelecheia), in philosophy, that which realizes or makes actual what is otherwise merely potential. The concept is intimately connected with Aristotle’s distinction between matter and form, or the potential and the actual. He analyzed each thing into the stuff or elements of which it is composed and the form which makes it what it is (see hylomorphism). The mere stuff or matter is not yet the real thing; it needs a certain form or essence or function to complete it. Matter and form, however, are never separated; they can only be distinguished. Thus, in the case of a living organism, for example, the sheer matter of the organism (viewed only as a synthesis of inorganic substances) can be distinguished from a certain form or function or inner activity, without which it would not be a living organism at all; and this “soul” or “vital function” is what Aristotle in his De anima (On the Soul) called the entelechy (or first entelechy) of the living organism. Similarly, rational activity is what makes a man to be a man and distinguishes him from a brute animal.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a 17th-century German philosopher and mathematician, called his monads (the ultimate reality of material beings) entelechies in virtue of their inner self-determined activity. The term was revived around the turn of the 20th century by Hans Driesch, a German biologist and philosopher, in connection with his vitalistic biology to denote an internal perfecting principle which, he supposed, exists in all living organisms.


Potentiality and actuality

Potentiality and actuality (W)

In philosophy, potentiality and actuality are a pair of closely connected principles which Aristotle used to analyze motion, causality, ethics, and physiology in his Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima, which is about the human psyche.

The concept of potentiality, in this context, generally refers to any "possibility" that a thing can be said to have. Aristotle did not consider all possibilities the same, and emphasized the importance of those that become real of their own accord when conditions are right and nothing stops them. Actuality, in contrast to potentiality, is the motion, change or activity that represents an exercise or fulfillment of a possibility, when a possibility becomes real in the fullest sense.

These concepts, in modified forms, remained very important into the Middle Ages, influencing the development of medieval theology in several ways. Going further into modern times, while the understanding of nature, and according to some interpretations deity, implied by the dichotomy lost importance, the terminology has found new uses, developing indirectly from the old. This is most obvious in words like “energy” and “dynamic” — words first used in modern physics by the German scientist and philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Another example is the highly controversial biological concept of an "entelechy".



Potentiality (W)

Look up potentiality, potentia, or δύναμις in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

Potentiality and potency are translations of the Ancient Greek word dunamis (δύναμις) as it is used by Aristotle as a concept contrasting with actuality. Its Latin translation is "potentia", root of the English word potential, and used by some scholars instead of the Greek or English variants.

Dunamis is an ordinary Greek word for possibility or capability. Depending on context, it could be translated "potency", "potential", "capacity", "ability", "power", "capability", "strength", "possibility", "force" and is the root of modern English words "dynamic", "dynamite", and "dynamo". In early modern philosophy, English authors like Hobbes and Locke used the English word "power" as their translation of Latin potentia.

In his philosophy, Aristotle distinguished two meanings of the word dunamis. According to his understanding of nature there was both a weak sense of potential, meaning simply that something "might chance to happen or not to happen", and a stronger sense, to indicate how something could be done well. For example, "sometimes we say that those who can merely take a walk, or speak, without doing it as well as they intended, cannot speak or walk". This stronger sense is mainly said of the potentials of living things, although it is also sometimes used for things like musical instruments.

Throughout his works, Aristotle clearly distinguishes things that are stable or persistent, with their own strong natural tendency to a specific type of change, from things that appear to occur by chance. He treats these as having a different and more real existence. "Natures which persist" are said by him to be one of the causes of all things, while natures that do not persist, "might often be slandered as not being at all by one who fixes his thinking sternly upon it as upon a criminal". The potencies which persist in a particular material are one way of describing "the nature itself" of that material, an innate source of motion and rest within that material. In terms of Aristotle's theory of four causes, a material's non-accidental potential, is the material cause of the things that can come to be from that material, and one part of how we can understand the substance (ousia, sometimes translated as "thinghood") of any separate thing. (As emphasized by Aristotle, this requires his distinction between accidental causes and natural causes.) According to Aristotle, when we refer to the nature of a thing, we are referring to the form, shape or look of a thing, which was already present as a potential, an innate tendency to change, in that material before it achieved that form, but things show what they are more fully, as a real thing, when they are "fully at work".




Actuality (W)

Actuality is often used to translate both energeia (ενέργεια) and entelecheia (ἐντελέχεια) (sometimes rendered in English as "entelechy"). "Actuality" comes from Latin actualitas and is a traditional translation, but its normal meaning in Latin is "anything which is currently happening".

The two words energeia and entelecheia were coined by Aristotle, and he stated that their meanings were intended to converge. In practice, most commentators and translators consider the two words to be interchangeable. They both refer to something being in its own type of action or at work, as all things are when they are real in the fullest sense, and not just potentially real. For example, "to be a rock is to strain to be at the center of the universe, and thus to be in motion unless constrained otherwise".



Energeia (W)

Energeia is a word based upon ἔργον (ergon), meaning “work.” It is the source of the modern word "energy" but the term has evolved so much over the course of the history of science that reference to the modern term is not very helpful in understanding the original as used by Aristotle. It is difficult to translate his use of energeia into English with consistency. Joe Sachs renders it with the phrase "being–at–work" and says that "we might construct the word is-at-work-ness from Anglo-Saxon roots to translate energeia into English". Aristotle says the word can be made clear by looking at examples rather than trying to find a definition.

Two examples of energeiai in Aristotle's works are pleasure and happiness (eudaimonia). Pleasure is an energeia of the human body and mind whereas happiness is more simply the energeia of a human being a human.

Kinesis, translated as movement, motion, or in some contexts change, is also explained by Aristotle as a particular type of energeia. See below.


Entelechy (entelechia)

Entelechy (entelechia) (W)

Entelechy, in Greek entelécheia, was coined by Aristotle and transliterated in Latin as entelechia. According to Sachs (1995, p. 245):

“Aristotle invents the word by combining entelēs (ἐντελής, "complete, full-grown") with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (ἐνδελέχεια, "persistence") by inserting "telos" (τέλος, "completion"). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle's thinking, including the definition of motion.”

Sachs therefore proposed a complex neologism of his own, "being-at-work-staying-the-same". Another translation in recent years is "being-at-an-end" (which Sachs has also used).

Entelecheia, as can be seen by its derivation, is a kind of completeness, whereas "the end and completion of any genuine being is its being-at-work" (energeia). The entelecheia is a continuous being-at-work (energeia) when something is doing its complete "work". For this reason, the meanings of the two words converge, and they both depend upon the idea that every thing's "thinghood" is a kind of work, or in other words a specific way of being in motion. All things that exist now, and not just potentially, are beings-at-work, and all of them have a tendency towards being-at-work in a particular way that would be their proper and "complete" way.

Sachs explains the convergence of energeia and entelecheia as follows, and uses the word actuality to describe the overlap between them:

“Just as energeia extends to entelecheia because it is the activity which makes a thing what it is, entelecheia extends to energeia because it is the end or perfection which has being only in, through, and during activity.”




Motion (W)

Aristotle discusses motion (kinēsis) in his Physics quite differently from modern science. Aristotle's definition of motion is closely connected to his actuality-potentiality distinction. Taken literally, Aristotle defines motion as the actuality (entelecheia) of a "potentiality as such". What Aristotle meant however is the subject of several different interpretations. A major difficulty comes from the fact that the terms actuality and potentiality, linked in this definition, are normally understood within Aristotle as opposed to each other. On the other hand, the "as such" is important and is explained at length by Aristotle, giving examples of "potentiality as such". For example, the motion of building is the energeia of the dunamis of the building materials as building materials as opposed to anything else they might become, and this potential in the unbuilt materials is referred to by Aristotle as "the buildable". So the motion of building is the actualization of "the buildable" and not the actualization of a house as such, nor the actualization of any other possibility which the building materials might have had.

Building materials have different potentials.
One is that they can be built with.
Building is one motion that had been a potential in the building material.
So it is the energeia or putting into action, of the building materials as building materials
A house is built, and no longer moving


In an influential 1969 paper Aryeh Kosman divided up previous attempts to explain Aristotle's definition into two types, criticised them, and then gave his own third interpretation. While this has not become a consensus, it has been described as having become "orthodox". This and similar more recent publications are the basis of the following summary.

1. The “process” interpretation

Kosman (1969) and Coope (2009) associate this approach with W.D. Ross. Sachs (2005) points out that it was also the interpretation of Averroes and Maimonides.

This interpretation is, to use the words of Ross that "it is the passage to actuality that is kinesis” as opposed to any potentiality being an actuality.

The argument of Ross for this interpretation requires him to assert that Aristotle actually used his own word entelecheia wrongly, or inconsistently, only within his definition, making it mean "actualization", which is in conflict with Aristotle's normal use of words. According to Sachs (2005) this explanation also can not account for the "as such" in Aristotle's definition.

2. The “product” interpretation

Sachs (2005) associates this interpretation with St Thomas of Aquinas and explains that by this explanation "the apparent contradiction between potentiality and actuality in Aristotle’s definition of motion" is resolved "by arguing that in every motion actuality and potentiality are mixed or blended". Motion is therefore "the actuality of any potentiality insofar as it is still a potentiality". Or in other words:

“The Thomistic blend of actuality and potentiality has the characteristic that, to the extent that it is actual it is not potential and to the extent that it is potential it is not actual; the hotter the water is, the less is it potentially hot, and the cooler it is, the less is it actually, the more potentially, hot.”

As with the first interpretation however, Sachs (2005) objects that:

“One implication of this interpretation is that whatever happens to be the case right now is an entelechia, as though something that is intrinsically unstable as the instantaneous position of an arrow in flight deserved to be described by the word that everywhere else Aristotle reserves for complex organized states that persist, that hold out against internal and external causes that try to destroy them.”

In a more recent paper on this subject, Kosman associates the view of Aquinas with those of his own critics, David Charles, Jonathan Beere, and Robert Heineman.

3. The interpretation of Kosman, Coope, Sachs and others

Sachs (2005), amongst other authors (such as Aryeh Kosman and Ursula Coope), proposes that the solution to problems interpreting Aristotle's definition must be found in the distinction Aristotle makes between two different types of potentiality, with only one of those corresponding to the "potentiality as such" appearing in the definition of motion. He writes:

The man with sight, but with his eyes closed, differs from the blind man, although neither is seeing. The first man has the capacity to see, which the second man lacks. There are then potentialities as well as actualities in the world. But when the first man opens his eyes, has he lost the capacity to see? Obviously not; while he is seeing, his capacity to see is no longer merely a potentiality, but is a potentiality which has been put to work. The potentiality to see exists sometimes as active or at-work, and sometimes as inactive or latent.

Coming to motion, Sachs gives the example of a man walking across the room and says that...

  • "Once he has reached the other side of the room, his potentiality to be there has been actualized in Ross’ sense of the term". This is a type of energeia. However it is not a motion, and not relevant to the definition of motion.
  • While a man is walking his potentiality to be on the other side of the room is actual just as a potentiality, or in other words the potential as such is an actuality. "The actuality of the potentiality to be on the other side of the room, as just that potentiality, is neither more nor less than the walking across the room."


Sachs (1995, pp. 78–79), in his commentary of Aristotle's Physics book III gives the following results from his understanding of Aristotle's definition of motion:

“The genus of which motion is a species is being-at-work-staying-itself (entelecheia), of which the only other species is thinghood. The being-at-work-staying-itself of a potency (dunamis), as material, is thinghood. The being-at-work-staying-the-same of a potency as a potency is motion.”


The importance of actuality in Aristotle's philosophy

The importance of actuality in Aristotle’s philosophy (W)

The actuality-potentiality distinction in Aristotle is a key element linked to everything in his physics and metaphysics.

Aristotle describes potentiality and actuality, or potency and action, as one of several distinctions between things that exist or do not exist. In a sense, a thing that exists potentially does not exist, but the potential does exist. And this type of distinction is expressed for several different types of being within Aristotle's categories of being. For example, from Aristotle's Metaphysics, 1017a

  • We speak of an entity being a "seeing" thing whether it is currently seeing or just able to see.
  • We speak of someone having understanding, whether they are using that understanding or not.
  • We speak of corn existing in a field even when it is not yet ripe.
  • People sometimes speak of a figure being already present in a rock which could be sculpted to represent that figure.


Within the works of Aristotle the terms energeia and entelecheia, often translated as actuality, differ from what is merely actual because they specifically presuppose that all things have a proper kind of activity or work which, if achieved, would be their proper end. Greek for end in this sense is telos, a component word in entelecheia (a work that is the proper end of a thing) and also teleology. This is an aspect of Aristotle's theory of four causes and specifically of formal cause (eidos, which Aristotle says is energeia) and final cause (telos).

In essence this means that Aristotle did not see things as matter in motion only, but also proposed that all things have their own aims or ends. In other words, for Aristotle (unlike modern science) there is a distinction between things with a natural cause in the strongest sense, and things that truly happen by accident. He also distinguishes non-rational from rational potentialities (e.g. the capacity to heat and the capacity to play the flute, respectively), pointing out that the latter require desire or deliberate choice for their actualization. Because of this style of reasoning, Aristotle is often referred to as having a teleology, and sometimes as having a theory of forms.

While actuality is linked by Aristotle to his concept of a formal cause, potentiality (or potency) on the other hand, is linked by Aristotle to his concepts of hylomorphic matter and material cause. Aristotle wrote for example that "matter exists potentially, because it may attain to the form; but when it exists actually, it is then in the form".


The active intellect

The active intellect (W)

Main article: Active Intellect

The active intellect was a concept Aristotle described that requires an understanding of the actuality-potentiality dichotomy. Aristotle described this in his De Anima (book 3, ch. 5, 430a10-25) and covered similar ground in his Metaphysics (book 12, ch.7-10). The following is from the De Anima, translated by Joe Sachs, with some parenthetic notes about the Greek. The passage tries to explain "how the human intellect passes from its original state, in which it does not think, to a subsequent state, in which it does." He inferred that the energeia/dunamis distinction must also exist in the soul itself:-

“...since in nature one thing is the material [hulē] for each kind [genos] (this is what is in potency all the particular things of that kind) but it is something else that is the causal and productive thing by which all of them are formed, as is the case with an art in relation to its material, it is necessary in the soul [psuchē] too that these distinct aspects be present;”

“the one sort is intellect [nous] by becoming all things, the other sort by forming all things, in the way an active condition [hexis] like light too makes the colors that are in potency be at work as colors [to phōs poiei ta dunamei onta chrōmata energeiai chrōmata].”

“This sort of intellect is separate, as well as being without attributes and unmixed, since it is by its thinghood a being-at-work, for what acts is always distinguished in stature above what is acted upon, as a governing source is above the material it works on.”

“Knowledge [epistēmē], in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time.”

This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks.

This has been referred to as one of "the most intensely studied sentences in the history of philosophy". In the Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote at more length on a similar subject and is often understood to have equated the active intellect with being the "unmoved mover" and God. Nevertheless, as Davidson remarks:

“Just what Aristotle meant by potential intellect and active intellect – terms not even explicit in the De anima and at best implied – and just how he understood the interaction between them remains moot to this day. Students of the history of philosophy continue to debate Aristotle's intent, particularly the question whether he considered the active intellect to be an aspect of the human soul or an entity existing independently of man.”


Post-Aristotelian usage

New meanings of energeia or energy

New meanings of energeia or energy (W)

Already in Aristotle's own works, the concept of a distinction between energeia and dunamis was used in many ways, for example to describe the way striking metaphors work, or human happiness. Polybius about 150 BC, in his work the Histories uses Aristotle's word energeia in both an Aristotelian way and also to describe the "clarity and vividness" of things. Diodorus Siculus in 60-30 BC used the term in a very similar way to Polybius. However Diodorus uses the term to denote qualities unique to individuals. Using the term in ways that could translated as "vigor" or "energy" (in a more modern sense); for society, "practice" or "custom"; for a thing, "operation" or "working"; like vigor in action.


Platonism and neoplatonism

Platonism and neoplatonism (W)

Already in Plato it is found implicitly the notion of potency and act in his cosmological presentation of becoming (kinēsis) and forces (dunamis), linked to the ordering intellect, mainly in the description of the Demiurge and the "Receptacle" in his Timaeus. It has also been associated to the dyad of Plato's unwritten doctrines, and is involved in the question of being and non-being since from the pre-socratics, as in Heraclitus's mobilism and Parmenides' immobilism. The mythological concept of primordial Chaos is also classically associated with a disordered prime matter (see also prima materia), which, being passive and full of potentialities, would be ordered in actual forms, as can be seen in Neoplatonism, especially in Plutarch, Plotinus, and among the Church Fathers, and the subsequent medieval and Renaissance philosophy, as in Ramon Lllull's Book of Chaos and John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Plotinus was a late classical pagan philosopher and theologian whose monotheistic re-workings of Plato and Aristotle were influential amongst early Christian theologians. In his Enneads he sought to reconcile ideas of Aristotle and Plato together with a form of monotheism, that used three fundamental metaphysical principles, which were conceived of in terms consistent with Aristotle's energeia/dunamis dichotomy, and one interpretation of his concept of the Active Intellect (discussed above):-

  • The Monad or "the One" sometimes also described as "the Good". This is the dunamis or possibility of existence.
  • The Intellect, or Intelligence, or, to use the Greek term, Nous, which is described as God, or a Demiurge. It thinks its own contents, which are thoughts, equated to the Platonic ideas or forms (eide). The thinking of this Intellect is the highest activity of life. The actualization of this thinking is the being of the forms. This Intellect is the first principle or foundation of existence. The One is prior to it, but not in the sense that a normal cause is prior to an effect, but instead Intellect is called an emanation of the One. The One is the possibility of this foundation of existence.
  • Soul or, to use the Greek term, psyche. The soul is also an energeia: it acts upon or actualizes its own thoughts and creates "a separate, material cosmos that is the living image of the spiritual or noetic Cosmos contained as a unified thought within the Intelligence".


This was based largely upon Plotinus' reading of Plato, but also incorporated many Aristotelian concepts, including the unmoved mover as energeia.


Essence-energies debate in medieval Christian theology

Essence-energies debate in medieval Christian theology (W)

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, St Gregory Palamas wrote about the "energies" (actualities; singular energeia in Greek, or actus in Latin) of God in contrast to God's "essence" (ousia). These are two distinct types of existence, with God's energy being the type of existence which people can perceive, while the essence of God is outside of normal existence or non-existence or human understanding, i. e. transcendental, in that it is not caused or created by anything else.

Palamas gave this explanation as part of his defense of the Eastern Orthodox ascetic practice of hesychasm. Palamism became a standard part of Orthodox dogma after 1351.

In contrast, the position of Western Medieval (or Catholic) Christianity, can be found for example in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, who relied on Aristotle's concept of entelechy, when he defined God as actus purus, pure act, actuality unmixed with potentiality. The existence of a truly distinct essence of God which is not actuality, is not generally accepted in Catholic Theology.


Influence on modal logic

Influence on modal logic (W)

The notion of possibility was greatly analyzed by medieval and modern philosophers. Aristotle's logical work in this area is considered by some to be an anticipation of modal logic and its treatment of potentiality and time. Indeed, many philosophical interpretations of possibility are related to a famous passage on Aristotle's On Interpretation, concerning the truth of the statement: "There will be a sea battle tomorrow".

Contemporary philosophy regards possibility, as studied by modal metaphysics, to be an aspect of modal logic. Modal logic as a named subject owes much to the writings of the Scholastics, in particular William of Ockham and John Duns Scotus, who reasoned informally in a modal manner, mainly to analyze statements about essence and accident.


Influence on modern physics

Influence on modern physics (W)

Aristotle's metaphysics, his account of nature and causality, was for the most part rejected by the early modern philosophers. Francis Bacon in his Novum Organon in one explanation of the case for rejecting the concept of a formal cause or "nature" for each type of thing, argued for example that philosophers must still look for formal causes but only in the sense of "simple natures" such as colour, and weight, which exist in many gradations and modes in very different types of individual bodies. In the works of Thomas Hobbes then, the traditional Aristotelian terms, “potentia et actus,” are discussed, but he equates them simply to “cause and effect.”

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, the source of the modern adaptations of Aristotle's concepts of potentiality and actuality.


There was an adaptation of at least one aspect of Aristotle's potentiality and actuality distinction, which has become part of modern physics, although as per Bacon's approach it is a generalized form of energy, not one connected to specific forms for specific things. The definition of energy in modern physics as the product of mass and the square of velocity, was derived by Leibniz, as a correction of Descartes, based upon Galileo's investigation of falling bodies. He preferred to refer to it as an entelecheia or "living force" (Latin vis viva), but what he defined is today called "kinetic energy", and was seen by Leibniz as a modification of Aristotle's energeia, and his concept of the potential for movement which is in things. Instead of each type of physical thing having its own specific tendency to a way of moving or changing, as in Aristotle, Leibniz said that instead, force, power, or motion itself could be transferred between things of different types, in such a way that there is a general conservation of this energy. In other words, Leibniz's modern version of entelechy or energy obeys its own laws of nature, whereas different types of things do not have their own separate laws of nature. Leibniz wrote:

“...the entelechy of Aristotle, which has made so much noise, is nothing else but force or activity; that is, a state from which action naturally flows if nothing hinders it. But matter, primary and pure, taken without the souls or lives which are united to it, is purely passive ; properly speaking also it is not a substance, but something incomplete.”

Leibniz's study of the "entelechy" now known as energy was a part of what he called his new science of "dynamics", based on the Greek word dunamis and his understanding that he was making a modern version of Aristotle's old dichotomy. He also referred to it as the "new science of power and action", (Latin "potentia et effectu" and "potentia et actione"). And it is from him that the modern distinction between statics and dynamics in physics stems. The emphasis on dunamis in the name of this new science comes from the importance of his discovery of potential energy which is not active, but which conserves energy nevertheless. "As 'a science of power and action', dynamics arises when Leibniz proposes an adequate architectonic of laws for constrained, as well as unconstrained, motions."

For Leibniz, like Aristotle, this law of nature concerning entelechies was also understood as a metaphysical law, important not only for physics, but also for understanding life and the soul. A soul, or spirit, according to Leibniz, can be understood as a type of entelechy (or living monad) which has distinct perceptions and memory.


Entelecheia in modern philosophy and biology

Entelecheia in modern philosophy and biology (W)

As discussed above, terms derived from dunamis and energeia have become parts of modern scientific vocabulary with a very different meaning from Aristotle's. The original meanings are not used by modern philosophers unless they are commenting on classical or medieval philosophy. In contrast, entelecheia, in the form of "entelechy" is a word used much less in technical senses in recent times.

As mentioned above, the concept had occupied a central position in the metaphysics of Leibniz, and is closely related to his monad in the sense that each sentient entity contains its own entire universe within it. But Leibniz' use of this concept influenced more than just the development of the vocabulary of modern physics. Leibniz was also one of the main inspirations for the important movement in philosophy known as German Idealism, and within this movement and schools influenced by it entelechy may denote a force propelling one to self-fulfillment.

In the biological vitalism of Hans Driesch, living things develop by entelechy, a common purposive and organising field. Leading vitalists like Driesch argued that many of the basic problems of biology cannot be solved by a philosophy in which the organism is simply considered a machine. Vitalism and its concepts like entelechy have since been discarded as without value for scientific practice by the overwhelming majority of professional biologists.

However, in philosophy aspects and applications of the concept of entelechy have been explored by scientifically interested philosophers and philosophically inclined scientists alike. One example was the American critic and philosopher Kenneth Burke (1897–1993) whose concept of the "terministic screens" illustrates his thought on the subject. Most prominent was perhaps the German quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. He looked to the notions of potentiality and actuality in order to better understand the relationship of quantum theory to the world.

Prof Denis Noble argues that, just as teleological causation is necessary to the social sciences, a specific teleological causation in biology, expressing functional purpose, should be restored and that it is already implicit in neo-Darwinism (e.g. "selfish gene"). Teleological analysis proves parsimonious when the level of analysis is appropriate to the complexity of the required 'level' of explanation (e.g. whole body or organ rather than cell mechanism).




Teleology — PHILOSOPHY (B)

Teleology — PHILOSOPHY (B)

Teleology, (from Greek telos, “end,” and logos, “reason”), explanation by reference to some purpose, end, goal, or function. Traditionally, it was also described as final causality, in contrast with explanation solely in terms of efficient causes (the origin of a change or a state of rest in something). Human conduct, insofar as it is rational, is generally explained with reference to ends or goals pursued or alleged to be pursued, and humans have often understood the behaviour of other things in nature on the basis of that analogy, either as of themselves pursuing ends or goals or as designed to fulfill a purpose devised by a mind that transcends nature. The most-celebrated account of teleology was that given by Aristotle when he declared that a full explanation of anything must consider its final cause as well as its efficient, material, and formal causes (the latter two being the stuff out of which a thing is made and the form or pattern of a thing, respectively).

With the rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, interest was directed to mechanistic explanations of natural phenomena, which appeal only to efficient causes; if teleological explanations were used, they took the form not of saying (as in Aristotelian teleology) that things develop toward the realization of ends internal to their own natures but of viewing biological organisms and their parts as complex machines in which each smaller part is minutely adapted to others and each performs a specific function that contributes (e.g., in the case of the eye) to the function or purpose of the whole (e.g., that of seeing). For the 18th-century Protestant Apologist William Paley and his followers, the machinelike nature of biological organisms could be explained only by positing a divine designer of all life. Paley’s teleology thus became the basis of the modern version of the teleological argument for the existence of God, also called the argument from design.

Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Urtheilskraft (1790; Critique of Judgment) dealt at length with teleology. While acknowledging—and indeed exulting in—the wondrous appointments of nature, Kant cautioned that teleology can be, for human knowledge, only a regulative, or heuristic, principle and not a constitutive one—i.e., a guide to the conduct of inquiry rather than to the nature of reality. Accordingly, teleological language in the biological sciences is not to be taken literally; it is essentially a set of useful metaphors.

Paley’s teleology was undermined in the 19th century by the emergence of evolutionary theory, which was able to explain the machinelike nature of biological organisms as having come about entirely through efficient causation in a long process of natural selection. Despite apparently having made teleology conceptually unnecessary to biology, however, evolutionary theory did not result in the elimination of teleological language from the biological sciences. Darwinists as much as believers in divine design continued to speak of the function or purpose of the eye, for example. Was that fact an indication that some notion of function or purpose (or end or goal), one that could not be captured in Darwinian terms, remained essential to biology? Or was it merely a reflection of the usefulness of teleological language as a shorthand for referring to processes and relations that were greatly more complex?

Those who took the latter position, which was essentially that of Kant, attempted from the early 20th century to systematically eliminate teleological language from the biological sciences, with mixed success. One such approach advocated simply defining the notion of function in terms of Darwinian natural selection. Those who held the former view recognized that some notion of function or teleology generally was uniquely suitable to biology and not eliminable from it. Some theorists within this group argued that biological teleology could not be explained entirely in terms of natural selection because the former essentially involved references to normative concepts such as the “good” (of an organism or its parts), “benefit” (to an organism or its parts), or “harmony” (of a biological system).


Teleology (W)

Teleology (W)

Teleology (from τέλος, telos, 'end', 'aim', or 'goal,' and λόγος, logos, 'explanation' or 'reason') or finality is a reason or explanation for something as a function of its end, purpose, or goal. A purpose that is imposed by a human use, such as that of a fork, is called extrinsic.

Natural teleology, common in classical philosophy, though controversial today, contends that natural entities also have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion. For instance, Aristotle claimed that an acorn's intrinsic telos is to become a fully grown oak tree. Though ancient atomists rejected the notion of natural teleology, teleological accounts of non-personal or non-human nature were explored and often endorsed in ancient and medieval philosophies, but fell into disfavor during the modern era (1600–1900).

In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant used the concept of telos as a regulative principle in his Critique of Judgment (1790). Teleology was also fundamental to the philosophy of Karl Marx and G. W. F. Hegel.

Contemporary philosophers and scientists are still in debate as to whether teleological axioms are useful or accurate in proposing modern philosophies and scientific theories. An example of the reintroduction of teleology into modern language is the notion of an attractor. Another instance is when Thomas Nagel (2012), though not a biologist, proposed a non-Darwinian account of evolution that incorporates impersonal and natural teleological laws to explain the existence of life, consciousness, rationality, and objective value. Regardless, the accuracy can also be considered independently from the usefulness: it is a common experience in pedagogy that a minimum of apparent teleology can be useful in thinking about and explaining Darwinian evolution even if there is no true teleology driving evolution. Thus it is easier to say that evolution "gave" wolves sharp canine teeth because those teeth "serve the purpose of" predation regardless of whether there is an underlying non-teleologic reality in which evolution is not an actor with intentions. In other words, because human cognition and learning often rely on the narrative structure of stories (with actors, goals, and proximal rather than distal causation), some minimal level of teleology might be recognized as useful or at least tolerable for practical purposes even by people who reject its cosmologic accuracy. Its accuracy is upheld by Barrow and Tippler (1986), whose citings of such teleologists as Max Planck and Norbert Wiener are significant for scientific endeavor.



History (W)

In western philosophy, the term and concept of teleology originated in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle's 'four causes' give special place to the telos or "final cause" of each thing. In this, he followed Plato in seeing purpose in both human and subhuman nature.



The word teleology combines Greek telos (τέλος, from τελε-, 'end' or 'purpose') and logia (-λογία, 'speak of', 'study of', or 'a branch of learning"'). German philosopher Christian Wolff would coin the term, as teleologia (Latin), in his work Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728).



In the Phaedo, Plato through Socrates argues that true explanations for any given physical phenomenon must be teleological. He bemoans those who fail to distinguish between a thing's necessary and sufficient causes, which he identifies respectively as material and final causes:

“Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and 'binding' binds and holds them together.”

— Plato, Phaedo, 99


Plato here argues that while the materials that compose a body are necessary conditions for its moving or acting in a certain way, they nevertheless cannot be the sufficient condition for its moving or acting as it does. For example, if Socrates is sitting in an Athenian prison, the elasticity of his tendons is what allows him to be sitting, and so a physical description of his tendons can be listed as necessary conditions or auxiliary causes of his act of sitting. However, these are only necessary conditions of Socrates' sitting. To give a physical description of Socrates' body is to say that Socrates is sitting, but it does not give us any idea why it came to be that he was sitting in the first place. To say why he was sitting and not not sitting, we have to explain what it is about his sitting that is good, for all things brought about (i.e., all products of actions) are brought about because the actor saw some good in them. Thus, to give an explanation of something is to determine what about it is good. Its goodness is its actual cause—its purpose, telos or "reason for which."



Aristotle argued that Democritus was wrong to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because doing so neglects the aim, order, and "final cause", which brings about these necessary conditions:

“Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature. Now, they are necessary, it is true, but yet they are for a final cause and for the sake of what is best in each case. Thus nothing prevents the teeth from being formed and being shed in this way; but it is not on account of these causes but on account of the end …”

— Aristotle, Generation of Animals 5.8, 789a8–b15


In Physics, using eternal forms as his model, Aristotle rejects Plato's assumption that the universe was created by an intelligent designer. For Aristotle, natural ends are produced by "natures" (principles of change internal to living things), and natures, Aristotle argued, do not deliberate:

“It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present [in nature] because we do not see an agent deliberating.”

— Aristotle, Physics, 2.8, 199b27-9


These Platonic and Aristotelian arguments ran counter to those presented earlier by Democritus and later by Lucretius, both of whom were supporters of what is now often called accidentalism:

“Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

— Lucretius, De rerum natura [On the Nature of Things] 4, 833




Economics (W)

A teleology of human aims played a crucial role in the work of economist Ludwig von Mises, especially in the development of his science of praxeology. More specifically, Mises believed that human action (i.e. purposeful behavior) is teleological, based on the presupposition that an individual's action is governed or caused by the existence of their chosen ends. In other words, individuals select what they believe to be the most appropriate means to achieve a sought after goal or end. Mises also stressed that, with respect to human action, teleology is not independent of causality: "No action can be devised and ventured upon without definite ideas about the relation of cause and effect, teleology presupposes causality."


Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy

Postmodern philosophy (W)

Teleological-based "grand narratives" are renounced by the postmodern tradition, where teleology may be viewed as reductive, exclusionary, and harmful to those whose stories are diminished or overlooked.

Against this postmodern position, Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that a narrative understanding of oneself, of one's capacity as an independent reasoner, one's dependence on others and on the social practices and traditions in which one participates, all tend towards an ultimate good of liberation. Social practices may themselves be understood as teleologically oriented to internal goods, for example practices of philosophical and scientific inquiry are teleologically ordered to the elaboration of a true understanding of their objects. MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981) famously dismissed the naturalistic teleology of Aristotle's 'metaphysical biology', but he has cautiously moved from that book's account of a sociological teleology toward an exploration of what remains valid in a more traditional teleological naturalism.



Hegel (W)

Historically, teleology may be identified with the philosophical tradition of Aristotelianism. The rationale of teleology was explored by Immanuel Kant (1790) in his Critique of Judgement and made central to speculative philosophy by G. W. F. Hegel (as well as various neo-Hegelian schools). Hegel proposed a history of our species which some consider to be at variance with Darwin, as well as with the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, employing what is now called analytic philosophy — the point of departure being not formal logic and scientific fact but 'identity', or "objective spirit" in Hegel's terminology.

Individual human consciousness, in the process of reaching for autonomy and freedom, has no choice but to deal with an obvious reality: the collective identities (e.g. the multiplicity of world views, ethnic, cultural, and national identities) that divide the human race and set different groups in violent conflict with each other. Hegel conceived of the 'totality' of mutually antagonistic world-views and life-forms in history as being 'goal-driven', i.e. oriented towards an end-point in history. The 'objective contradiction' of 'subject' and 'object' would eventually 'sublate' into a form of life that leaves violent conflict behind. This goal-oriented, teleological notion of the "historical process as a whole" is present in a variety of 20th-century authors, although its prominence declined drastically after the Second World War.




Ethics (W)

Teleology significantly informs the study of ethics, such as in:

  • Business ethics: People in business commonly think in terms of purposeful action, as in, for example, management by objectives. Teleological analysis of business ethics leads to consideration of the full range of stakeholders in any business decision, including the management, the staff, the customers, the shareholders, the country, humanity and the environment.
  • Medical ethics: Teleology provides a moral basis for the professional ethics of medicine, as physicians are generally concerned with outcomes and must therefore know the telos of a given treatment paradigm.



Consequentialism (W)

The broad spectrum of consequentialist ethics—of which utilitarianism is a well-known example—focuses on the end result or consequences, with such principles as John Stuart Mill's 'principle of utility': "the greatest good for the greatest number." This principle is thus teleological, though in a broader sense than is elsewhere understood in philosophy.

In the classical notion, teleology is grounded in the inherent nature of things themselves, whereas in consequentialism, teleology is imposed on nature from outside by the human will. Consequentialist theories justify inherently what most people would call evil acts by their desirable outcomes, if the good of the outcome outweighs the bad of the act. So, for example, a consequentialist theory would say it was acceptable to kill one person in order to save two or more other people. These theories may be summarized by the maxim "the end justifies the means."



Deontologicalism (W)

Consequentialism stands in contrast to the more classical notions of deontological ethics, of which examples include Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, and Aristotle's virtue ethics — although formulations of virtue ethics are also often consequentialist in derivation.

In deontological ethics, the goodness or badness of individual acts is primary and a larger, more desirable goal is insufficient to justify bad acts committed on the way to that goal, even if the bad acts are relatively minor and the goal is major (like telling a small lie to prevent a war and save millions of lives). In requiring all constituent acts to be good, deontological ethics is much more rigid than consequentialism, which varies by circumstances.

Practical ethics are usually a mix of the two. For example, Mill also relies on deontic maxims to guide practical behavior, but they must be justifiable by the principle of utility.




Science (W)

In modern science, explanations that rely on teleology are often, but not always, avoided, either because they are unnecessary or because whether they are true or false is thought to be beyond the ability of human perception and understanding to judge. But using teleology as an explanatory style, in particular within evolutionary biology, is still controversial.

Since the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon, teleological explanations in physical science tend to be deliberately avoided in favor of focus on material and efficient explanations. Final and formal causation came to be viewed as false or too subjective. Nonetheless, some disciplines, in particular within evolutionary biology, continue to use language that appears teleological in describing natural tendencies towards certain end conditions. Some suggest, however, that these arguments ought to be, and practicably can be, rephrased in non-teleological forms, others hold that teleological language cannot always be easily expunged from descriptions in the life sciences, at least within the bounds of practical pedagogy.



Biology (W)

Apparent teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology, much to the consternation of some writers.

Statements implying that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something "in order to" achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid. Usually, it is possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology even if that is not the intention. John Reiss (2009) argues that evolutionary biology can be purged of such teleology by rejecting the analogy of natural selection as a watchmaker. Other arguments against this analogy have also been promoted by writers such as Richard Dawkins (1987).

Some authors, like James Lennox (1993), have argued that Darwin was a teleologist, while others, such as Michael Ghiselin (1994), describe this claim as a myth promoted by misinterpretations of his discussions and emphasized the distinction between using teleological metaphors and being teleological.

Biologist philosopher Francisco Ayala (1998) has argued that all statements about processes can be trivially translated into teleological statements, and vice versa, but that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of. Karen Neander (1998) has argued that the modern concept of biological 'function' is dependent upon selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence without going through a process of selection has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analysing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, any talk of functions must be posterior to natural selection and function cannot be defined in the manner advocated by Reiss and Dawkins.

Ernst Mayr (1992) states that "adaptedness…is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking." Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand. For example, S. H. P. Madrell (1998) writes that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection." Likewise, J. B. S. Haldane says, "Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he's unwilling to be seen with her in public."

Selected-effects accounts, such as the one suggested by Neander (1998), face objections due to their reliance on etiological accounts, which some fields lack the resources to accommodate. Many such sciences, which study the same traits and behaviors regarded by evolutionary biology, still correctly attribute teleological functions without appeal to selection history. Corey J. Maley and Gualtiero Piccinini (2018/2017) are proponents of one such account, which focuses instead on goal-contribution. With the objective goals of organisms being survival and inclusive fitness, Piccinini and Maley define teleological functions to be “a stable contribution by a trait (or component, activity, property) of organisms belonging to a biological population to an objective goal of those organisms.”



Cybernetics (W)

Cybernetics is the study of the communication and control of regulatory feedback both in living beings and machines, and in combinations of the two.

Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow (1943) had conceived of feedback mechanisms as lending a teleology to machinery. Wiener (1948) coined the term cybernetics to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms." In the cybernetic classification presented by Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow (1943), teleology is feedback controlled purpose.

The classification system underlying cybernetics has been criticized by Frank Honywill George and Les Johnson (1985), who cite the need for an external observability to the purposeful behavior in order to establish and validate the goal-seeking behavior. In this view, the purpose of observing and observed systems is respectively distinguished by the system's subjective autonomy and objective control.



  Teleology in biology

Teleology in biology

Teleology in biology (W)

Teleology in biology is the use of the language of goal-directedness in accounts of evolutionary adaptation, which some biologists and philosophers of science find problematic. The term teleonomy has also been proposed. Before Darwin, organisms were seen as existing because God had designed and created them; their features such as eyes were taken by natural theology to have been made to enable them to carry out their functions, such as seeing. Evolutionary biologists often use similar teleological formulations that invoke purpose, but these imply natural selection rather than actual goals, whether conscious or not. Dissenting biologists and religious thinkers held that evolution itself was somehow goal-directed (orthogenesis), and in vitalist versions, driven by a purposeful life force. Since such views are now discredited, with evolution working by natural selection acting on inherited variation, the use of teleology in biology has attracted criticism, and attempts have been made to teach students to avoid teleological language.

Nevertheless, biologists still often write about evolution as if organisms had goals, and some philosophers of biology such as Francisco Ayala and biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane consider that teleological language is unavoidable in evolutionary biology.



Context (W)

Teleology, from Greek τέλος, telos "end, purpose" and -λογία, logia, "a branch of learning", was coined by the philosopher Christian von Wolff in 1728. The concept derives from the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle, where the final cause (the purpose) of a thing is its function. However, Aristotle's biology does not envisage evolution by natural selection.

Phrases used by biologists like "a function of ... is to ..." or "is designed for" are teleological at least in language. The presence of real or apparent teleology in explanations of natural selection is a controversial aspect of the philosophy of biology, not least for its echoes of natural theology.


Natural theology

Natural theology (W)

Before Darwin, natural theology both assumed the existence of God and used the appearance of function in nature to argue for the existence of God. The English parson-naturalist John Ray stated that his intention was "to illustrate the glory of God in the knowledge of the works of nature or creation". Natural theology presented forms of the teleological argument or argument from design, namely that organs functioned well for their apparent purpose, so they were well-designed, so they must have been designed by a benevolent creator. For example, the eye had the function of seeing, and contained features like the iris and lens that assisted with seeing; therefore, ran the argument, it had been designed for that purpose.


Goal-directed evolution

Goal-directed evolution (W)

Main articles: Orthogenesis and Vitalism

Religious thinkers and biologists have repeatedly supposed that evolution was driven by some kind of life force, a philosophy known as vitalism, and have often supposed that it had some kind of goal or direction (towards which the life force was striving, if they also believed in that), known as orthogenesis or evolutionary progress. Such goal-directedness implies a long-term teleological force; some supporters of orthogenesis considered it to be a spiritual force, while others held that it was purely biological. For example, the Russian embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer believed in a teleological force in nature, whereas the French spiritualist philosopher Henri Bergson linked orthogenesis with vitalism, arguing for a creative force in evolution known as élan vital in his book Creative Evolution (1907). The French biophysicist Pierre Lecomte du Noüy and the American botanist Edmund Ware Sinnott developed vitalist evolutionary philosophies known as telefinalism and telism respectively. Their views were heavily criticized as non-scientific; the palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson argued that Du Noüy and Sinnott were promoting religious versions of evolution. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued that evolution was aiming for a supposed spiritual "Omega Point" in what he called "directed additivity". With the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis, in which the genetic mechanisms of evolution were discovered, the hypothesis of orthogenesis was largely abandoned by biologists, especially with Ronald Fisher's argument in his 1930 book The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.


Natural selection

Natural selection (W)

Natural selection

Main articles: Natural selection and Evolution

Natural selection, introduced in 1859 as the central mechanism of evolution {?} by Charles Darwin, is the differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. The mechanism directly implies evolution, a change in heritable traits of a population over time.



Adaptation (W)

A trait which persists in a population is often assumed by biologists to have been selected for in the course of evolution, raising the question of how the trait achieves this. Biologists call any such mechanism the function of the trait, using phrases like "A function of stotting by antelopes is to communicate to predators that they have been detected", or "The primate hand is designed (by natural selection) for grasping."

An adaptation is an observable structure or other feature of an organism (for example, an enzyme) generated by natural selection to serve its current function. A biologist might propose the hypothesis that feathers are adaptations for bird flight. That would require three things: that the trait of having feathers is heritable; that the trait does serve the function of flight; and that the trait increases the fitness of the organisms that have it. Feathers clearly meet these three conditions in living birds. However, there is also a historical question, namely, did the trait arise at the same time as bird flight? Unfortunately for the hypothesis, this seems not to be so: theropod dinosaurs had feathers, but many of them did not fly. Feathers can be described as an exaptation, having been co-opted for flight but having evolved earlier for another purpose such as insulation. Biologists may describe both the co-option and the earlier adaptation in teleological language.


Status in evolutionary biology

Reasons for discomfort

Reasons for discomfort (W)

Apparent teleology is a recurring issue in evolutionary biology, much to the consternation of some writers, and as an explanatory style it remains controversial. There are various reasons for discomfort with teleology among biologists.

Firstly, the concept of adaptation is itself controversial, as it can be taken to imply, as the evolutionary biologists Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin argued, that biologists agree with Voltaire's Doctor Pangloss in his 1759 satire Candide that this is "the best of all possible worlds", in other words that every trait is perfectly suited to its functions. However, all that evolutionary biology requires is the weaker claim that one trait is at least slightly better in a certain context than another, and hence is selected for.

Secondly, teleology is linked to the pre-Darwinian idea of natural theology, that the natural world gives evidence of the conscious design and beneficent intentions of a creator, as in the writings of John Ray. William Derham continued Ray's tradition with books such as his 1713 Physico-Theology and his 1714 Astro-Theology. They in turn influenced William Paley who wrote a detailed teleological argument for God in 1802, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature, starting with the Watchmaker analogy. Such creationism, along with a vitalist life-force and directed orthogenetic evolution, has been rejected by most biologists.

Thirdly, attributing purposes to adaptations risks confusion with popular forms of Lamarckism where animals in particular have been supposed to influence their own evolution through their intentions, though Lamarck himself spoke rather of habits of use, and the belief that his thinking was teleological has been challenged.

Fourthly, the teleological explanation of adaptation is uncomfortable because it seems to require backward causation, in which existing traits are explained by future outcomes; because it seems to attribute the action of a conscious mind when none is assumed to be present in an organism; and because, as a result, adaptation looks impossible to test empirically.

A fifth reason concerns students rather than researchers: Gonzalez Galli argues that since people naturally imagine that evolution has a purpose or direction, then the use of teleological language by scientists may act as an obstacle to students when learning about natural selection. Such language, he argues, should be removed to make teaching more effective.


Removable teleological shorthand

Removable teleological shorthand (W)

Statements which imply that nature has goals, for example where a species is said to do something "in order to" achieve survival, appear teleological, and therefore invalid to evolutionary biologists. It is however usually possible to rewrite such sentences to avoid the apparent teleology. Some biology courses have incorporated exercises requiring students to rephrase such sentences so that they do not read teleologically. Nevertheless, biologists still frequently write in a way which can be read as implying teleology, even though that is not their intention. John Reiss argues that evolutionary biology can be purged of apparent teleology by rejecting the pre-Darwinian watchmaker analogy for natural selection; other arguments against this analogy have also been promoted by writers such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Some philosophers of biology such as James G. Lennox have argued that Darwin was a teleologist, while others like Michael Ghiselin described this claim as a myth promoted by misinterpretations of his discussions, and emphasized the distinction between using teleological metaphors and actually being teleological. Michael Heads, on the other hand, describes a change in Darwin's thinking about evolution that can be traced from the first volume of On the Origin of Species to later volumes. For Heads, Darwin was originally a far more teleological thinker, but over time, "learned to avoid teleology." Heads cites a letter Darwin wrote in 1872, in which he downplayed the role of natural selection as a causal force on its own in explaining biological adaptation, and instead gave more weight to "laws of growth," that operate [without the aid of natural selection].

Andrew Askland, from the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law claims that unlike transhumanism, an ideology that aims to improve the human condition, which he asserts is "wholly teleological", Darwinian evolution is not teleological.

Various commentators view the teleological phrases used in modern evolutionary biology as a type of shorthand for describing any function which offers an evolutionary advantage through natural selection. For example, the zoologist S. H. P. Madrell wrote that "the proper but cumbersome way of describing change by evolutionary adaptation [may be] substituted by shorter overtly teleological statements" for the sake of saving space, but that this "should not be taken to imply that evolution proceeds by anything other than from mutations arising by chance, with those that impart an advantage being retained by natural selection."


Irreducible teleology

Irreducible teleology (W)

Other philosophers of biology argue instead that biological teleology is irreducible, and cannot be removed by any simple process of rewording. Francisco Ayala specified three separate situations in which teleological explanations are appropriate. First, if the agent consciously anticipates the goal of their own action; for example the behavior of picking up a pen can be explained by reference to the agent's desire to write. Ayala extends this type of teleological explanation to non-human animals by noting that A deer running away from a mountain lion. . . has at least the appearance of purposeful behavior." Second, teleological explanations are useful for systems that have a mechanism for self-regulation despite fluctuations in environment; for example, the self-regulation of body temperature in animals. Finally, they are appropriate "in reference to structures anatomically and physiologically designed to perform a certain function. "

Ayala, relying on work done by philosopher Ernest Nagel, also rejects the idea that teleological arguments are inadmissible because they cannot be causal. For Nagel, teleological arguments must be consistent because they can always be reformulated as non-teleological arguments. The difference between the two is, for Ayala, merely one of emphasis. Nagel writes that while teleological arguments focus on "the consequences for a given system of a constituent part or process," the equivalent non-teleological arguments focus on ""some of the conditions ... under which the system persists in its characteristic organization and activities." However, Francisco Ayala argued that that teleological statements are more explanatory and cannot be disposed of. Karen Neander similarly argued that the modern concept of biological 'function' depends on natural selection. So, for example, it is not possible to say that anything that simply winks into existence, without going through a process of selection, actually has functions. We decide whether an appendage has a function by analysing the process of selection that led to it. Therefore, Neander argues, any talk of functions must be posterior to natural selection, function must be defined by reference to the history of a species, and teleology cannot be avoided. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr likewise stated that "adaptedness ... is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking."

Angela Breitenbach, looking at the question of teleology in biology from a Kantian perspective, argues that teleology is important as "a heuristic in the search for causal explanations of nature and ... an inevitable analogical perspective on living beings." In her view of Kant, teleology implies something that cannot be explained by science, but only understood through analogy.

Colin Pittendrigh coined the similar term 'teleonomy' for apparently goal-directed biological phenomena. For Pittendrigh, the notion of 'adaptation' in biology, however it is defined, necessarily "connote that aura of design, purpose, or end-directedness, which has, since the time of Aristotle, seemed to characterize the living thing" This association with Aristotle, however, is problematic, because it meant that the study of adaptation would inevitably be bound up with teleological explanations. Pittendrigh sought to preserve the aspect of design and purpose in biological systems, while denying that this design can be understood as a causal principle. The confusion, he says, would be removed if we described these systems "by some other term, like 'teleonomic,' in order to emphasize that the recognition and description of end-directedness does not carry a commitment to Aristotelian teleology as an efficient causal principle." Ernst Mayr criticised Pittendrigh's confusion of Aristotle's four causes, arguing that evolution only involved the material and formal but not the efficient cause. Mayr proposed to use the term only for "systems operating on the basis of a program of coded information."

William C. Wimsatt affirmed that the teleologicality of the language of biology and other fields derives from the logical structure of their background theories, and not merely from the use of teleological locutions such as "function" and "in order to". He stated that "To replace talk about function by talk about selection [...] is not to eliminate teleology but to rephrase it". However, Wimsatt argues that this thought does not mean an appeal to backwards causation, vitalism, entelechy, or anti-reductionist sentiments.

The biologist J. B. S. Haldane observed that "Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he's unwilling to be seen with her in public."





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