Your point is?

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Your point is?

The teleologians: Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael's The School of Athens. Photo by Ted Spiegel/Corbis

Science can’t stop talking in terms of ‘purposes’, but if the universe cares about us, it has a funny way of showing it

Steven Poole is a British journalist, broadcaster and composer. His latest book is Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? (2013).

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It was an idea long consigned to the dustbin of scientific history. ‘Like a virgin consecrated to God,’ Francis Bacon declared nearly 400 years ago, it ‘produces nothing’. It was anti-rational nonsense, the last resort of unfashionable idealists and religious agitators. And then, late last year, one of the world’s most renowned philosophers published a book arguing that we should take it seriously after all. Biologists and philosophers lined up to give the malefactor a kicking. His ideas were ‘outdated’, complained some. Another wrote: ‘I regret the appearance of this book.’ Steven Pinker sneered at ‘the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker’. The Guardian called it ‘the most despised science book of 2012’. So what made everyone so angry?

The thinker was Thomas Nagel, the book was Mind and Cosmos, and the idea was teleology. In ancient science (or, as it used to be called, natural philosophy), teleology held that things — in particular, living things — had a natural end, or telos, at which they aimed. The acorn, Aristotle said, sprouted and grew into a seedling because its purpose was to become a mighty oak. Sometimes, teleology seemed to imply an intention to pursue such an end, if not in the organism then in the mind of a creator. It could also be taken to imply an uncomfortable idea of reverse causation, with the telos — or ‘final cause’ — acting backwards in time to affect earlier events. For such reasons, teleology was ceremonially disowned at the birth of modern experimental science.

The extraordinary success since then of non-teleological scientific thinking and its commitment to forwards-only  ‘mechanistic causation’ would seem to support Bacon’s denunciation of teleology. But it continued to bubble under the surface as a live problem for some, particularly regarding descriptions of life. Immanuel Kant wrote that, when observing a living being, we couldn’t help thinking in teleological terms, and to do so was justified for its scientific usefulness. Even so, he concluded, an ultimately teleological explanation was unauthorised, since we could never know whether it was true or not. Friedrich Engels hailed the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species as the final nail in the coffin for teleology; yet one of Darwin’s admirers felt able to read it nonetheless as confirming a teleological view of life’s development, a position that Darwin himself (mostly) rejected.

The idea that living things had purpose would not go away, and it sparked developments in fields beyond biology itself. Norbert Wiener, in his classic 1948 treatise Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, argued that once artificial systems are engineered to include ‘feedback’ (when the output becomes part of the next input), then we have created a new kind of ‘teleological machine’: a machine that has purpose, just like an organism does. Later, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) argued that moral philosophy had lost its way precisely because it had abandoned Aristotelian teleology — the idea that there was an essential ‘true end’ for a human being, a naturally correct way for a person to flourish. ‘The whole point of ethics,’ MacIntyre wrote, ‘is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end’. If you no longer believe in such a true end, he argued, the whole enterprise lacks rational grounding.

Nagel says that the appearance of conscious beings such as us can be described as the universe waking up

Meanwhile, Hegel’s teleological view of human affairs — as the world-spirit pursuing an ultimate aim through the dialectical operations of history — proved surprisingly durable, through various modulations. Even in our own time, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) advanced the teleological argument that liberal democracies were the culmination of a process of natural selection that had winnowed out all other kinds of social organisation. And a kind of diluted Hegelian teleology is still present in notions of ‘progressive’ politics, as well as, more explicitly, in the utopian-armageddon dreams of Singularity theorists, who believe we are destined to merge spiritually with our own machines.

In Mind and Cosmos, subtitled Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Nagel revives the concept of teleology on the basis of his conviction that the mind-body problem has more serious ramifications for evolutionary science than is ordinarily accepted. How does the electrochemical activity of neurons in the human brain produce subjective, first-person experience? Nobody knows. Nagel says that the appearance of conscious beings such as us can be described as the universe waking up. Yet to him it seems unlikely that life would ever have got started in the first place, somehow springing forth from ‘dead matter’; still more unlikely that some forms of life would have developed consciousness; and extremely improbable that one form of life would have acquired the ‘transcendent’ power of reason. In order to explain these events, Nagel suggests, you need more than simply the ‘mechanistic’ tools of the laws of physics, natural selection, and so on. You need not just physical theory but ‘psychophysical theory’. And you might even need teleology.

It’s a bold claim, but not in itself an unscientific one. Indeed, what Nagel’s critics rarely conceded was the fact that teleological talk remains rampant to this day in popular and even academic science writing. Vast subterranean seams of purposive metaphor imply a picture of final cause not only in modern biology but in chemistry and physics, too. It has long been accepted that ordinary descriptions of biological function, such as ‘The heart is for pumping blood’, are teleologically inflected shorthand. But we also commonly read, for example, that subatomic particles  ‘know’ or ‘choose’ the ‘right’ path to take; that molecules rearrange themselves ‘in order to’ achieve a certain energy state; or that traits in organisms evolve ‘in order to’ allow the animal to do something new.

Everywhere we ascribe purpose to the workings of the natural world. While there are often ways of rephrasing such descriptions to eliminate the implication of purpose, it is surprising how natural such teleological talk still seems to us in science, half a millennium after its spectre was supposedly banished for good. And its attraction seems unlikely to dwindle at least while the origin of life — the unsolved puzzle that drives Nagel’s thinking — is still mysterious. There is still no convincing answer to the question of how, as the physicist Vlatko Vedral put it in his essay ‘What life wants’ for this magazine, one might reconcile biology and quantum physics in order to explain the ‘purposefulness’ of living things.

In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel’s suggested teleology does not involve a creator; it is merely a law-like tendency in the universe that somehow loads the dice in favour of the appearance of consciousness. In this conception, Nagel writes, ‘things happen because they are on a path that leads to certain outcomes’. (It is important that other laws of nature be non-deterministic, as quantum physics arguably implies they are, in order for the teleological law to have some purchase over events.) As Nagel puts it, it might be that the universe exhibits ‘a bias toward the marvellous’. If so, it would not be surprising that consciousness had appeared, because we live in a universe whose very purpose, aim, or telos, is the production of consciousness.

If anything, this sounds quite comfortingly mystical so far. However, what particularly infuriated critics was Nagel’s attitude towards evolutionary biology. It is his doubts about evolutionary theory which motivate the teleological speculations. It is true that Nagel is far too polite to the creationists of the ‘Intelligent Design’ movement, who still cleave to a supernaturalist version of teleology that requires a god-creator; their arguments, he writes, ‘are of great interest’. On the contrary, ID’s arguments have been comprehensively and repeatedly demolished — for instance, during the humiliation at the 2005 Dover Area School District trial of one of the ID theorists whom Nagel admires, Michael Behe.

Perhaps this aspect of Nagel’s book might be excused as a sin of misplaced intellectual charity. More troubling is his fondness for the argument from personal incredulity. ‘It is prima facie highly implausible,’ he intuits, ‘that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection’. There are insuperable ‘questions of probability’. The current orthodoxy, he suggests, ‘flies in the face of common sense’. Well, one reasonable answer is that it is and has always been the job and the glory of science to fly in the face of common sense. If a theory that is robustly supported by evidence conflicts with your common sense, you had better adjust the latter. And so we now accept, for example, that apparently solid objects are composed of atoms themselves largely made up of empty space, and that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice-versa. More specifically, personal feelings about probability do not get you very far when considering evolutionary theory. Nagel doubts whether there could have been enough viable mutations ‘in the available geological time’ for beings like us to evolve through sheer ‘accident’. But, as the philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote in a respectfully critical review for the London Review of Books, ‘This is one area in which intuitions are worth nothing.’ The experts have done the math.

Nagel has a cosmic horror of the fluke, because it is so unconsoling. But what if the appearance of life and consciousness just were sheer flukes? What if they probably wouldn’t happen again if you ran the universe from the same initial conditions? What if there are a great many different universes, and life just happened to arise in ours but not in most of the others? These possibilities cannot be prima facie dismissed, but Nagel rules them out because in such realities there would be no ‘explanation’ of a sufficiently robust sort for the ‘remarkable’ fact that we are here, searching for explanations. But what if it’s just the case that no explanation of the sort Nagel thinks worthy of the name is to be had? In that case, or so it seems, we would have nothing left to do but pack up our philosophical toys and go home.

Not only can we not help speaking teleologically, but on this picture it can make perfectly good materialist sense to do so

That is why, Nagel argues, we need teleology, to help make the appearance of philosophers (and baristas, and princesses and diving instructors) more likely than not. It sounds fantastical, but the scorn to which Nagel’s book has been subjected is less justified here than it is in relation to his views on evolution. Firstly, the idea of fundamental teleological laws is not in itself incoherent, as shown by John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan’s entertaining 2006 paper ‘What Would Teleological Causation Be?’, which Nagel cites. And secondly, as we have seen, so much scientific language today is still teleological.

For a more detailed example, take a couple of sentences from Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s recent popularisation of (one intepretation of) quantum physics, The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen (2012). ‘This is the basis of chemistry,’ the authors write: ‘it is energetically favourable for atoms to fill their energy levels with electrons, even if that is achieved by sharing with a neighbour. Their “desire” to do this, which ultimately stems from the principle that things tend to their lowest energy state, is what drives the formation of everything from water to DNA.’

Cox and Forshaw have carefully put scare quotes around ‘desire’, since of course we are not invited to think that atoms really want anything. But teleology is still arguably implied by three other terms they employ without such rhetorical rubber gloves: the idea that it is ‘favourable’ for atoms to do one thing rather than another, as though there is a good for them; the principle that things ‘tend’ to one energy state rather than another, as though seeking it; and the notion that all this ‘drives’ the formation of compounds, as though aiming at it. Metaphorically at least, it’s teleology all the way down.

One radical option here is to bite the bullet and take seriously such verbal ascriptions of purpose to inanimate matter. One thing we know has purpose is mind. So if matter has purpose, maybe that’s because it has mind as well? Such reasoning would lead one to the position of panpsychism, another old theory lately revived by the philosopher Galen Strawson and others, and which Nagel also mentions at several points in Mind and Cosmos as one possible component of an eventual ‘psychophysical’ theory. On this view, mind is a fundamental property of all matter, not just of particular collections of matter arranged brainwise. So a rock or even an electron has itself a tiny bit of mind. This idea certainly has its charms, though it also creates new problems: how, for example, is a large or ‘thick’ consciousness such as a human one supposed to be built up out of all the tiny bits of proto-consciousness enjoyed by the particles of matter that make up the brain? Panpsychism might be true, but it seems difficult to investigate experimentally. Many doubt how much of an ‘explanation’ it really provides, even on a more liberal understanding of explanation than Nagel’s own.

Contrarily, one can attempt to domesticate teleology through careful redescription, translating metaphors about intentions into vocabulary that is consistent with mechanistic causation. The philosopher Tim Lewens, for example, has shown how to do this for descriptions of evolution. We can still say, he argues in his book Darwin (2007), that wolves have evolved to run fast ‘in order to catch deer’, because this expresses a ‘conditional fact’: ‘The wolves’ environment may be such that were these wolves to run faster, they would catch more deer. This conditional fact can cause the pack to become composed of faster-running wolves.’ (Because faster-running wolves will be better fed and so likely to leave more offspring.) And so it is legitimate to use the teleological explanation that ‘a particular pack of wolves is composed of fast runners because running fast helps wolves to catch deer’. No wolfish intentions or overwatching designer-agent are thereby implied; now we have a respectably naturalised version of teleology. Not only can we not help speaking teleologically, but on this picture it can make perfectly good materialist sense to do so.

How much else might teleology elucidate? Nagel invokes it to explain what he considers otherwise unlikely: the development of animal consciousness and, before that, the organisation of ‘dead matter’ into DNA. (Some critics retorted that it is now thought that DNA was preceded by RNA, apparently having missed Nagel’s footnote observing that, if so, the question of how RNA itself got started is still a conundrum.) But why start there? There are even more fundamental questions about the distant past that might be amenable to teleological therapy. Cox and Forshaw, for example, concede at the end of their book that there is currently no good explanation for why the universe contains the particular particles it does. Might teleology provide a suitable deus ex machina?

In cosmology, in fact, teleological principles are seriously proposed in some quarters as an answer to the ‘fine-tuning’ puzzle — why the laws of nature are ‘just right’, to a very fine degree of precision, for allowing a universe that can support life. The physicist Paul Davies endorses a teleological ‘life principle’ in his book The Goldilocks Enigma (2007). This is an example of what is called ‘anthropic’ reasoning, which generally proceeds by inverting the question of human origins. Instead of asking how we came to be here in the universe as we understand it, an anthropic line of inquiry begins by observing that we are here, and then explores what that fact might tell us about the universe.

Other theorists, however, are allergic to anthropic talk, finding it distastefully solipsistic. Instead, they propose a multiplicity of universes, each with different laws of nature. We should not be surprised to find ourselves in a universe that can support life, on this view, because in one of the other (perhaps far more numerous) universes, we simply wouldn’t be there to be surprised in the first place. But this is just the kind of ‘many-worlds’ argument that Nagel refuses to call an explanation, though there are some versions of it that incorporate teleology on a grander scale. The physicist Lee Smolin, for example, who disdains anthropic arguments, offers a kind of non-human-centred teleology in his ‘fecund universes’ hypothesis, according to which many universes are undergoing a process of natural selection so as to produce the maximum possible number of black holes. Meanwhile, Hawthorne and Nolan, at the end of their paper, show how teleological laws in principle could even explain why there would be any universes at all in the first place, or ‘why there is something rather than nothing’ — a question that is otherwise, depending on one’s philosophical and scientific proclivities, either trivial, deeply mysterious, or nonsensical.

But what if, after all, it’s not about us?

The problem for fundamental teleology as a scientific hypothesis is not that it is definitely not true, but rather that we currently have no ways to test for such regularities as might be theoretically promoted to teleological laws, or even any very detailed descriptions of what such laws might say. Nagel himself doesn’t attempt a detailed description of teleological laws, leaving the task hopefully to creative scientists of the future. And yet, even if we grant the logical possibility of such laws, it seems open to us to criticise Nagel’s view from a decidedly less Panglossian viewpoint than his own. The idea of teleology has historically been consistently seductive because it seems to grant purpose and meaning — if not to any individual human life, then at least to humanity’s existence as a whole. It is soothing to feel we are part of a story that will have a satisfying ending. Nagel, indeed, rejects many-worlds theories precisely on the basis that they are, as he puts it, ‘not sufficiently reassuring’. But what if, after all, it’s not about us? Might the apparent consolations of teleology break down on a longer view?

Take Nagel’s argument from value. According to him, teleology might be necessary to explain the remarkable capacity of our reason to apprehend not just mathematical but also moral truths. Nagel is a ‘value realist’, so he thinks values (good, bad) are not just expressions of subjective approval or distaste but are embedded in reality once creatures appear for whom things can go well or otherwise. So the cosmos unfolds with a tendency to produce not just conscious creatures but also value; perhaps it even produces conscious creatures just so as to produce value. Yet on some plausible estimates, the amount of bad since the appearance of life on our planet vastly outweighs the amount of good. (Just think of the vast numbers of creatures who have suffered and died horribly over billions of years of evolution on Earth.) If it is the purpose of the universe to produce such a horrifying asymmetry of value, that might seem like a bad cosmic joke, if not worse.

Nagel’s view seems even more vulnerable, on its own terms, over the bleaker long scale of time. Why should we assume that rational creatures like us (wherever they might be: Nagel notes the possibility of alien intelligences) are the telos of the universe, when there is plenty of universal history left to go yet? Some scientists forecast that the universe will eventually end in ‘heat death’, a state of maximum entropy when there is no energy left for anything to happen. Perhaps that, instead, is the ultimate telos of the universe. If so, it might seem a gratuitous and even cosmically cruel diversion to have caused minds to have evolved along the way at all.

Read more essays on history of ideas, metaphysics and philosophy of science


  • rameshraghuvanshi

    How universe born ?Is universe has any purpose?No sure answer we have?What purpose Am I living?What is real motive of my life?I think I can give answer to this question. Main purpose of my life is avoid death in any circumstances.Why I want save my life?With deep search I find out that we are as an ancient Greek myth suggest looking for other half.This idea appeared in all religion.That other half we never meet so our great longing give meaning to our life.On the contrary if our other half we achieved or meet we become stone and loss our spirit. T.

  • mijnheer

    If there are fundamental teleological laws, there is still the question: What explains these laws? It is hard to see how the ultimate laws and principles of the universe can be explained without resort to speculation about meta-universes or whatever -- which just pushes the question back further. As David Hume wrote:

    "Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is rational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe. ... These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. ... The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer, as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it. Thus the observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavours to elude or avoid it."

    In Science As Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, Mary Midgley argues that teleological thinking is an inescapable feature of the way we humans explain things, and that even those who abjure teleology do not succeed in ridding themselves of it.

  • Jeffrey Reel

    Read Arthur Young's "The Reflexive Universe."

  • anony

    This is a fair and honest review. Pointing out that Nagel is not crazy, merely politically incorrect (for science) illuminates how biased those reviewing him are (surely they did not read that article on teleology - some very good philosophy). Unless these people think that Aristotle was an idiot, they have to indicate when and where teleology was ruled out a posteriori in the history of science - but there is no place where this was done.

  • MCope

    The notion of causation is itself mildly teleological.

  • valles

    Exactly off the point-from a graduate in English Literature whose scientific knowledge is from Leavisian maunderings.

  • JanSand

    As far as I understand it, science does not ask why anything exists, it merely acknowledges that it does and searches out the interactions of those forces and the various forms of matter and energy. The conceit that many humans have that they are some kind of zenith in the progress of the second law of thermodynamics is merely the same psychological tendency that once placed the Earth at the center of all things. Humans have existed for an insignificant length of time and as things seem to be progressing they will flash out of existence in the very near future due to their own stupidity in responding (or not responding) to ecological forces. We seem to be a very short term but quite amusing phenomenon. Human history may seem to be some kind of progress and insofar as general knowledge is concerned there is a seed of truth in that but human use of that knowledge is as crude as the first ape throwing rocks at other apes. It has not progressed at all as witness any survey of current world relationships. If there is purpose in that I have yet to see it.

  • Hope

    Here is my comments:

    1.) Mechanistic causation IS teleological (not only mildly). However there is a less narrow concept of causation which is purposeful BECAUSE it is non-mechanistic, non-teleological, non-final. So it is not impossible to avoid "teleological talk" or "making a perfectly good materialist sense" while talking about life in terms of causation. This is just the case for science, since science IS teleological.

    2.) Purpose is a concept that is "purposeful" only in relation to human life. Therefore, there cant be purpose, beyond, before, or independent from human life. However, this does NOT automatically mean that the totality of cosmic activities is directed towards human life, consciousness, or value. Neither does it mean that purpose must be "final" or constant. Why should it? Or rather, how can it be final?

    3.) Human beings (for example scientists) who are looking into "nature", physicality, the biological or neurobiological foundations of "life", are usually doing nothing else than perpetuating variations of the same mechanistic, teleological, and reductive explainations of life. These explainations can – in the end – only be purposed to maintaining the same limiting ends. Which is why people nowadays can make a living (Though not experience their lifes as very purposeful).

    4.) Life is not equal consciousness or "subjective, first-person experience". It is not "springing forth" from dead matter as something completely different. It is not entirely disassociated from it. One could say that living beings are never 100% alive. Life is always – AT ANY MOMENT – a mixture of both living and dead matter. You dont need to be a philosopher or scientist to realize that this is true for individual life, as well as all of life including the cosmos in its entirety. Consciousness is not beyond this reality, therefore it doesnt take a special position within either life (or death, its temporary abscence). Life is transformation. Even stones transform. A stone does not exist outside of life.

    5.) Because life includes living and dead, it also includes all the worlds of the "many world theories" as well as the option of "nothing" rather than "something" as speculated by Hawthorne and Nolan – the idea of an opposition between existence and nonexistence (which is, again, not different from, but confirming the dominant reductive view of life). This is also the same reductive view of life that the "Singularity theorists" believe in. How can we ever have not been "merged" with technology?

    6.) Purpose doesnt need to be final. It can only ever be relative. For example relative to human life and living conditions which are everchanging. Therefore, purpose is a creative life that doesnt cease to change and transform itself as well as its surrounding environment and all realities (including imaginary, psychic, conscious ones.)

    7.) "Good and bad" in the universe, as well as humans and everything else, is how humans look at it, and is created in the relative transformations of life (your own or the universe as a whole). From a human perspective good is what is good for oneself and others. Everything else, good for oneself and bad for others, bad for onself and good for others, and bad for others as well as oneself, is bad. The phenomena that humans consider good or bad are relative and transformable. Good can turn out to be bad if the situation is a different one. The universe doesnt "strive towards creating good" in and of itself. It also doesnt have a "funny way". If we view the universe "as having its funny way with us" or view our own lifes as only an "amusing phenomenon" in relation to the universe we will miss out not only the purpose of our lifes but the fact that life actually is "marvellous", and this is not just because of consciousness, though consciousness is what makes humans responsible for creating good, value and giving life a purpose, but because our lifes are – also – a part of the life of the universe.

    • JanSand

      There are plenty of very conscious people doing very nasty things. And there are lots of frightful things going on that are quite purposeful. Purpose does not elevate anything and it can not only be catastrophic (such as the current degradation of the environment) but profoundly stupid. Humanity is trashing the planet for itself and all other life and Earth is an insignificant mote of dust in the universe which, itself, has exhibited no consciousness so it really couldn't give a damn.

      • Hope

        Let me try to rephrase what you want to say:

        There are plenty of people exploiting KNOWLEDGE (not consciousness) for very nasty ends. And there are people who are doing lots of frightful things and who are quite open about their intents. INSTRUMENTALITY (not purpose) does not elevate anything and amounts to a profound stupidity of catastrophic dimensions. More and more INDIVIDUALS (not humanity) are turning against life because they are deeply convinced that their own life as well as all other life and earth, including the universe itself, is an insignificant mote of dust. Additionally they DESPISE the Earth for lacking this same kind of view on itself.

        This is an illustration of the dominant view of life.

        What i try to say is that a limited or reductive understanding about life (ones own, as well as cosmic, universal or whatever), will equally limit or reduce ones own life (as well as that of the universe, the earth, whatever). One cannot exploit ones own consciousness about life, it can only be lived up. Consciousness is always reflected in action. This means that ones understanding, ones consciousness, ones perspective – or "philosophy of life" – will limit, or open up the way one can live out, or unfold, or become able to "give purpose to" ones own life. This is about a different kind of dignity of life. You believe that someone who is destroying his/her own life-support can still be considered "very conscious"? For me such a person is like a zombie. This is not a life that has purpose in the sense of "being able to live with a sense of purpose in life". It is a life that merely has various certain purposes (intentions) in mind, and executing them sequentially as they bubble up one after the other.

        From my perspective what you are saying here comes down to: "My awareness about life does not affect how i live (or act)." Then what does? I propose it would be "something higher". Something that then must be "opposite to" life, including your own life. I think this is dangerous not only for yourself.

        • jansand

          I find it most peculiar and delusive of most people who conceive of themselves as somehow separate from the universe which they view as exterior to themselves. There is nothing to indicate that a conscious being such as a dog or a squid or a human being exists in any way other than any other dynamic process such as a volcano or a whirlwind. Powers have not exhibited any altitude. Gravity or electro-magnetism exist on a level and are not higher nor lower. If humanity generates planetary conditions that destroys itself it is merely a phenomenon like a defective building collapsing and there is no morality involved. If it were made better, it would not collapse but, perhaps, it then would not be humanity. We are what we are and that may be considered a tragedy by some humans but stars do not lament when they go nova. They just become something else and it looks very much like humanity is also moving along to become whatever it will become without a habitable planet. Humans have only been around for a couple of million years so we are a very temporary phenomenon.

    • Mac Sneedy

      'Mechanistic causation IS teleological (not only mildly).' How so? Where is the 'ultimate purpose' in the collision of billiard balls?

      • Hope

        Viewing life in terms of mechanistic causation is teleological because it necessiates a radical exteriority which automatically becomes (or constitutes) the ultimate or final cause for everything. Then everything is, because of that. And if it turns out to be meaningless (to people), than meaninglessness is "its" ultimate purpose (not related to people + fully determined by something "higher", something outside).

        • Mac Sneedy

          i think you and i have a very different notion of what the phrase 'ultimate purpose' means. regardless, if you include randomness in the equation - which both physics and evolutionary theory do - the idea that 'mechanistic causation' has a 'final purpose' is simply incoherent.

      • dfafd

        To make it into the hole.

  • Jonah Dempcy

    Check out Richard Tarnas' Cosmos & Psyche (2006), great book by an esteemed scholar and author of the book Passion of the Western Mind (1993) taught in college campuses all over the world. Of course, after Tarnas put out his newest book, 15 years in the making, he suffered a tremendous backlash in the manner of Nagel's, because Tarnas makes claims like: "Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self's own will to power." For Tarnas, the cosmos is full of meaning, purpose, intention, and when we project soullessness on it we imagine ourselves as the sole perceivers or arbiters of meaning and purpose in the universe.

    There is a Tarnas essay which is quite excellent and relevant to this discussion. It discusses teleology as the Myth of Progress (part of the Enlightenment myth but also found in German Idealism and even existentialism!) which is a myth that competes with the Myth of the Fall, the anti-teleological myth. Tarnas claims that both and neither are right, or that we need to imagine a reality wide enough to contain both, and that depending on the way you look at reality, one or the other mythic image appears, like a perspectival illusion. So reality is meaningless and non-teleological from one perspective but is full of meaning and purpose from another. They are just mutually-exclusive perspectives on the same thing, in some sense. Here's the essay where Tarnas addresses both myths:

  • Robert Landbeck

    There is the question of whether or not our species can even be described as fully rational or moral without a known Teleogiclal Law to measure against. For any conception of morality is itself illusionary without defined and agreed purpose and there is little of that around. Yet the whole of 'civilization' might very well be described as the search for just such 'purpose', that continues to remain, like an undiscovered country, outside the limits of natural reason but which consciousness can still imagine. And while science may disregard the idea, 'logically' because there is no way to test for a Teleological Law even if we could comprehend what that Law might be, that is not to say that such a potent idea might not manifest itself in the future, near or far. And such direction could only be a positive good for humanity. Especially one, seemingly headed for an ecological or other self made abyss.

    "What constrains the highest of human aspirations from being realized is rarely imagined, but if such a catalyst with the necessary authority were to exist, who would even care? Unfortunately our world has usually preferred the soft, the easy and more convenient paths of intellectual vanity, political correctness and spiritual confectionery, than the honesty and courage to question and confront human nature itself.

  • bruis

    This article reveals (though does not investigate) that we cannot speak without using metaphors and that perspectives and intentions are deeply embedded in most metaphors. Nagel may just be responding to yet unable to accept that our thinking is loaded with teleological assumption. When we read terms such as "desire", "favorable" and "tend" we detect implications of perspective and intention even if we know the words are short-hand and not INTENDED to convey perspective and intention. Nagel's frustration at apparent purposelessness against the odds is understandable but he does not manage to convert that into a coherent argument. We are left only with the (all too human) frustration. It was counterintuitive that Miller and Urey would in 7 days convert 10% of the carbon in their closed "carbon, methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water" system to sugars, lipids, and nucleic acids with just the addition of lightning simulating sparks. RNA then DNA are no surprise if we can get away from the time and space limitations of our perspective, but most of us can't, as Nagel reminds us.

  • peterforrester

    It's amusing how the most anti-teleological uber-Darwinian still chooses to use "evolution" or "natural selection" to explain everything from religion to monogamy.

    • Mac Sneedy

      'amusing' as in 'ironic'? explanation doesn't necessarily equal teleology. evolution is not a teleological theory.

  • Zach

    The notion that life has a purpose will go away when human beings realize that "human rights" and "justice" are falsehoods as well.

  • Derek Roche

    Neither a First Cause nor a Final Cause makes sense if, as seems most likely, the universe is Causa Sui: the cause of itself.

    In a self-generated, self-organizing, self-governing universe, neither Aristotelian logic nor Cartesian dualism would obtain but the Self that Nagel so acutely feels the lack of would be always already inherent.

    We need a postmodern approach to science. Here's a rough sketch:

  • jansand

    The search for a purpose in all things has its roots in the most necessary instinct of life for survival. To survive in a universe which is not oriented to preserve life but merely exists in all manner of random situations, of environments and forces which are essentially oblivious to the well being and survival of the individual, it is wise to view the outer world as having some intent in order to comport one's self to be aware of anything either malevolent or beneficent and be prepared to act accordingly to remain alive and competent. Out of this grew the various specific primitive gods and subsequently much of our current more general deities. All with conscious purposes involving intent. And further abstractive processes have dispensed with distinct supernatural entities but maintained a joining up of the various basic natural forces into an ethereal consolidation of intent on the part of, perhaps, something of no consciousness, but with a goal, a target which humans, in their basic sense of self importance, places them in the bull's eye. It is an amusingly conceited thought but rather naively foolish. The universe proceeds inexorably and blithely from one type of cataclysm to another with no indication whatsoever that any of it has any particular goal other than the resolution of tensions involving matter and energy and whatever else exists which we have not yet understood.

  • Shalom Freedman

    Ask the following question. At the end of the end , what will be? Will there be a Mind capable of understanding All including itself, or will there be Nothing?
    God is the Creator and the Purpose of the Universe for those who believe all will end, not in the absence of Consciousness, but in Mind Aware of Itself.

  • jansand

    And why is it so grand that there be a conscious universe? Each human has a consciousness and is that what has made the world so kind so gentle, so concerned with each other, so tolerant of differences of thought and genetic origins. Look around you at the current state of a conscious world and tell me how marvelous this so-called prize has been. The rampant brutality, greed, callousness and incessant stupidity are all achievements of human consciousness and this theoretical God that presumably knew what he, it, her was doing in creating this creature called mankind must either take full responsibility for its results or confess total incompetence in creative ability. Better to dispense with that idea and accept the obvious that humanity is merely another descendent of some rat-like creature that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs as all evidence indicates. Intellect seems not the absolute wonder humans pride themselves in. No doubt it is useful to dispel boredom but it seems no less malevolent than a mouthful of shark teeth.

    • Brian T. Raven

      I've grafted the first sentence of your comment to the last three, and will keep it at hand for those rare moments when someone asks me the meaning and purpose of life. It will also be revisited when the mood is glum and I need a lift.
      Of course all this fascination with meaning and purpose is not really a good way to spend our time. We've got about 550m years to go, and much to do, before the lights go out. And, anyway, it's just not all that complicated. Four kinds of atoms make up 99.6% of the human body. Even Legos have eight times more variety than that. Neuroscientists can now see what we're dreaming, and when we're awake they know what we're thinking a fraction of a second before we do. No, we're nothing special; we're just lucky. What we should focus on is how to share our awe and fascination about life with the kids we raise - to help them come to understand that it makes more sense to embrace the new stuff we get to learn every day and not get tied down to ideas that are no longer relevant.

      • jansand

        I am at that stage of life wherein one bcomes aware of all that stuff one has passed through and puzzles ove how and why it fits together, somewhat like a dog who first becomes aware of its tail and runs around in circles trying to catch it. I had assumed I was getting on at the age of 88 and was becoming a bit tremulous over the average concept that things were closing down. The fact that I have 550 m years to go puts me into a much more sustainable mood. For that I am most grateful and thank you.

  • Mac Sneedy

    'It’s a bold claim, but not in itself an unscientific one.' This is followed by examples that by implication are the sort of 'teleologically inflected shorthand' scientists have 'long' used. But even if actual scientists actually say things like 'traits in organisms evolve "in order to" allow the animal to do something new,' that doesn't make it a *scientific* concept. I expect most working evolutionary biologists would agree that that is simply a lazy way of making it sound more intuitive to people - like saying the sun rises and sets, when in fact that is false, and no astronomer would claim otherwise.

    On the other hand, saying 'the heart is for pumping blood' is no different from saying 'the brakes are for stopping the car' - it's a purely functional description - and it's silly to talk about this as if it's some slippery slope to (or evidence of) 'Teleology' - which is about a final, ultimate point or purpose to life, the universe and everything. There's a distinction between having a function and having a goal - and between having an end (say, the heat death of the universe) and *having a purpose* in pursuing that end - that both Nagel and Poole seem to have missed.

    Similarly, the notion that things 'tend' to one state rather than another is merely descriptive: water tends to remain a liquid within a given temperature range. Who seriously takes this as covert (or as a gateway to) teleological thinking? Anything that facilitates an outcome can be described (again, in a lazy, quasi-intuitive shorthand) as 'favorable' to that outcome. But again, that is not capital-T Teleology. It's figurative language being used to describe things in terms that are familiar to people. Having more money would be favorable to my purchasing a hat. So would having a head, the existence of hats, of hatshops, of money, etc etc. Is the second law of thermodynamics teleological? Or does it describe an observable pattern? 'Metaphorically at least, it’s teleology all the way down.' Perhaps, but, again, that doesn't make it scientific.

    There is nothing factual (from the perspective of evolutionary theory), conditionally or otherwise, about the claim that wolves evolved to run fast in order to catch deer. Wolves who randomly mutated to run faster than other wolves were more likely to catch more deer, and thus survived at a higher rate than slower wolves. As the slower wolves eat less and eventually die off, you end up with a faster population. It may not be intuitive to some people, but it's not a very complicated idea, and there is nothing remotely teleological about it. Deer are relatively fast: you have to be fast to catch one. Teleological language may be more intuitive for some but it hardly makes 'perfectly good materialist sense': the two descriptive approaches - the teleological-metaphorical on the one hand, and the straightforward materialist-evolutionary on the other - are diametrically opposed. And even if you *do* think teleological language makes materialist sense, it doesn't follow from that that there must be some ultimate final cause.

    'The problem for fundamental teleology as a scientific hypothesis is not that it is definitely not true, but rather that we currently have no ways to test for such regularities as might be theoretically promoted to teleological laws, or even any very detailed descriptions of what such laws might say.' I would argue rather that, even if we had those laws, the fundamental problem for teleology as an explanation for anything begs the question of who or what set the goal toward which all is tending. The teleological approach defers the answer indefinitely - almost to the extent that we are expected to believe that Teleology itself is the reason for - Teleology. At least the scientific approach - which obviously has much left to explain - keeps the door open for the further identification of causes.

    I think we'd all save a lot of time and nonsense if we re-read Bertrand Russell's 'Why I Am Not a Christian' every year or so.

    • InterNid

      The idea that teleology is about having an "ultimate point or purpose to life, the universe and everything" is a Christian notion, not an Aristotelian one. Formal causes exist; they help determine outcomes of biological processes insofar as morphodynamics create biases or constraints. Final cause is the process that harnesses those constraints in adaptive processes. Formal cause is active in inanimate self-organized systems, but final cause only occurs in living systems. There is nothing unscientific about this. Formal and final causes simply work by constraining the probability of outcomes and creating tendencies that are not statistically predictable. Victoria Alexander's The Biologist's Mistress gives a good account of this and discusses the history of the Christianization of Aristotle.

  • inri.realpresence

    The author's quote below is absurd:

    "On the contrary, ID’s arguments have been comprehensively and repeatedly demolished — for instance, during the humiliation at the 2005 Dover Area School District trial of one of the ID theorists whom Nagel admires, Michael Behe."

    Science cannot explain the mechanism where complex information comes from, such as that in DNA. See information theory silly scientists. ;)


    DNA code is a language like Java, C++, English, Chinese.

    Definition of language = a series of ordered symbols; its creator's intent is to communicate information.

    What language is not.

    Language is not randomly ordered symbols, it does not communicate information.

    Randomly ordered symbols do not communicate information, such as "kjrfarutrgk" communicates no information.

    Ordered symbols, for example in English, such as "you are sceptical," communicates information.

    Natural language like English, Chinese have evolved over time by its creators to communicate information.

    Java, C++ is a formal language created by computer programmers to communicate information to an electronic device.

    DNA code is a language, an ordered set of symbols (i.e., ordered pairs) created by Intelligent Design to communicate information, such as millions of years of evolution on Earth?

    • Mac Sneedy

      'Language is not randomly ordered symbols, it does not communicate information.' That's not what you meant to say, it is?

  • dhicynic

    The book "Into the cool" presents the argument that everything in the universe, including planets and life, arises because they cause energy to reach equilibrium faster. Hence the ultimate telos is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  • Halek

    "Some scientists forecast that the universe will eventually end in ‘heat death’, a state of maximum entropy when there is no energy left for anything to happen. Perhaps that, instead, is the ultimate telos of the universe. If so, it might seem a gratuitous and even cosmically cruel diversion to have caused minds to have evolved along the way at all."

    Maybe the universe evolved life and eventually consciousness, language, and technology so it can maximize the rate of entropy. We're all entropy-generating machines. (Not an original idea.)

  • jansand

    The basic process of thinking involves abstracting experience into resolvable patterns and manipulating those patterns in virtual situations to explore possibilities. The interactions of forces and matter and energies does match, in a way, this virtual process so, in effect, the universe does explore possibilities, not virtually, but in actuality. Since the life of the universe is limited by the rule of the second law of thermodynamics, it is not possible to infer that all possibilities will be explored so one cannot say everything possible will occur. But in general concept. the universe already does think but I sincerely doubt if teleology or intent or consciousness is involved.


    Every thought, ever produced by the human race, is one gamma ray burst away from oblivion.

  • haig

    This is a very fine article, and I agree that, even though Nagel may be shooting himself in the foot with some of his arguments, particularly his support (however minor) of intelligent design and his skepticism of evolutionary theory with respect to geological timescales, he nevertheless hits the nail on the head with regard to very profound aspects of our cosmos that have yet to be given their properly deserved scientific attention, specifically self-organizing complexity and subjective conscious experience.

    I really do think teleology, or more precisely teleonomy, is a major conceptual piece to modern philosophical and scientific knowledge that has been missing. A scientifically justified theory of final causes can revolutionize much of modern secular thought, from ethics to epistemology and beyond. Nagel, as a philosopher, merely points out this gap and leaves it up to the scientists to do the groundwork, the problem with that is scientists must first be persuaded to believe that this is an endeavor worth working towards, and so far the majority remain unconvinced.

    Nagel's thoughts aren't really new, as this article showed, German idealism held to very similar ideas, and, not mentioned in this article, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put forth a body of work that is right up Nagel's alley. Again, the problem is in placing these concepts on empirical grounds, which requires scientists who are both immersed in modern reductionist science in different scientific specializations and are at the same time acknowledging the need for a paradigm shift that moves away from simple reductionism. The increasing interest in complex systems science does offer hope, and recent theories from promenant neuroscientists who actually admit to forms of panpsychism/property dualism based on complexity and information theory, points the way forward for a change in scientific consensus and possibly a vindication for Nagel and others of this school of thought.

  • jonmonroe

    Some effort should be focused on first distinguishing between ends that are necessary, ends that emerge (consciousness may be one) out of complexity, and ends that are ends only by means of interpretation. Only the first fits the tradition of teleology. The second could become a scientific discipline of pseudo-teleology, and the third fits into moral philosophy, psychology and epistemology.
    That said, Nagel's ideas are naive. He is too embedded in his own need to see purposes behind everything to see how little different his reasoning is from intelligent design, to cite no worse example. His arguments about value -- pragmatic teleology, it ought to be labeled -- are laughter-provoking exercises; a mind following its prejudices into a rabbit hole of rationalization.

  • beachcomber

    Let's presume that the "random biological event" which allowed for the cellular development of matter didn't occur. Let's presume that there is no anthropocentric logic to the structure of the universe, but only the laws of physics.

    If so, why should this article have any meaning? If a tree fall in a forest ...

  • Ky Purnell

    Great article but as with most other reviews of Nagel's book, can be easily summed up with 'Nagel overreaches in some fundamental assumptions about the universe vs the current state of human knowledge, and at heart is externalising his own need for there to be 'purpose' in the universe. He also goes way to easy on the ID/Creationists.'

  • hey_hey

    I don't have to read the article.

    The correct followup-question is as follows:

    "What is the meaning (or connotation and denotation, if you like) of the concept of meaning? What does "the meaning of life", mean?"

    What does some other arbitrary sentence about non-physical relations mean, eg "My friend and I are arguing over this".

  • jdgrab

    I tend to stand on the side of those who suggest that our "objectivity" is severely limited by the narrow parameters of our physical environment. Simply put: One can't see one's own head. I'm not sure how one evaluates the meaning of existence through such a badly focused lens, although I'm glad there are those who try. Frost perhaps said it best; "We dance round in a ring and suppose-While the secret sits in the middle and knows."

  • Vijen

    This is a reasonable survey of reality-as-seen-through-the-lens-of-materialism, and its conclusions are unsurprisingly derivative of the axiom that physical reality is primary. Defenders of this notion, and the entailed delusion that consciousness somehow "emerges" from stuff, are ubiquitous these days, notwithstanding the complete absence of anything remotely resembling a coherent chain of evidence and argument. Such dogma is as limiting and unsatisfactory as any religious worldview, and it utterly fails to comprehend the essential subjectivity of your experience and mine - as a convincing account of reality, materialism sucks.

    Start instead from the axiom that consciousness is primary, and conduct your own empirical enquiry to see what can truly be known. Those who make a deliberate and sustained investigation into the nature of subjectivity discover that their perception of identity is transformed. Until you know who you are, you can't rely on what you know.

  • jonmonroe

    Nagel made a mistake involving a defense of teleology in his wider attack on materialism. It wasn't necessary.

  • john till

    Great article. I am glad you mentioned the physicist Lee Smolin and his ‘fecund universes’ hypothesis (i.e., many universes are undergoing a process
    of natural selection so as to produce the maximum possible number of
    black holes). I love reading about these cutting edge concepts. Along these lines, there is a new book that takes the natural selection of universes concept but suggests that this hypothesis is more workable regarding the now more accepted notion (believe it or not) that we may reside in a series of computer simulated universes. The argument goes something like this. With many simulated universes running, there would be a variation of simulated physical properties from universe to universe. Simulated universes with certain physical traits would tend to survive longer and produce more hospitable environments for more advanced civilizations to produce a higher number of simulated universes themselves with an increased amount of those physical traits, and so on. So, over time, there would be a tendency for simulated civilizations to reside in more and more hospitable and longer-lived simulated universes.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    These kind of whimsical ideas are produced by many scientists..Science proves we have no freewill that we cannot know ourselves because we are full of hidden inner drives and that we are all different. so universal truth is immoral.We must accept the different way of thinking and completely depend on our mind what is truth and untruth

  • Archies_Boy

    Apparently, I have come eight months late to the party, judging by the dating of most of these comments. Nevertheless... Since an acorn becoming an oak tree is mentioned, who can deny that it is an incipient oak? What else is it going to do? It isn't going to become an orange tree nor a gumdrop. So I would agree in this point that it's "purpose" is to become an oak. Any incipient *anything* is going to transform into a final stage if not interfered with and allowed to complete the transformation. But "purpose" is a human concept. If some sort of Creative Agency *made* the acorn, then indeed we have teleology; otherwise, who the hell knows? ;-)

  • Jonathan Dunn

    I don't see this pointed out often: in the purposeless bottom-up materialist world, even physical scenarios that we think of as purposeful - such as a clock-maker working diligently in his laboratory - are purposeless. Nothing in human history or a human life is purposeful. And discussion of human consciousness as a self-evident objective phenomenon is all wet too, particularly for a materialist. Every electron minds its own business. Every synapse. And so there is no objective evidence of something subjective that often gets called "the phenomenon of consciousness". No objective explanation for consciousness due to no objective evidence for consciousness. If there is any meaning or purpose to things, it won't be in materialism, in which let's face it, there isn't even subjectivity or consciousness.

  • Juan Valdez

    "‘The whole point of ethics,’ MacIntyre wrote, ‘is to enable man to pass from his present state to his true end’. If you no longer believe in such a true end, he argued, the whole enterprise lacks rational grounding."

    My thoughts are that the question of purpose underlying the physical sciences, physical reality is a) this is one of THE most important questions of our time, for some of the reasons cited in the commentary on this piece with respect to our responsibility for the world collectively and the environment, and b) the problem of teleology itself has arguably been relegated to philosophy and theology since the early part of the twentieth century, running roughly in parallel with advancements in Physics [at the grand scale (General Relativity) and the microscopic scale (Quantum Theory)] leaving us intellectually with a system of ethics and morality that is divorced from science and has no empirical or intellectual grounding, unless one is religious, believes in God, and believes that God created the universe, and us, with a purpose which for better or worse most modern intellectuals do not adhere to in any way, shape or form due to its irrational foundations.

    This break of ethical foundations from what we would consider to be purely rational or intellectual pursuits, i.e. science, is unique to modern man and a relatively recent development viewed from the perspective of the history of mankind (as measured by the advent of civilization up until now, roughly the last 4 thousand years or so). Although this break can be viewed as a lever of progress, that it freed up scientists to work on knowledge for knowledge's sake leading directly to major advancements in technology, physics, etc, but from a socioeconomic standpoint it can be viewed as a lever of regress, in the sense that materialism (and its brother capitalism) is held up as the highest ideal and the greater good leading to economic prosperity, but any connection to a systemic and rational moral and ethical framework, which must at some level sit upon teleology (beyond causation), is left to the wayside.

    Food for thought, great piece and interesting commentary all in.