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Teleology is the position that there is design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in the works and processes of nature, and the philosophical study of that purpose. Teleology is from the Greek word telos which means the end or goal of a thing.

Teleology stands in contrast to philosophical naturalism, and both ask questions separate from the questions of science. While science investigates natural laws and phenomena, philosophical naturalism and teleology address and investigate the existence or non-existence of an organizing principle behind those natural laws and phenonema. Philosophical naturalism asserts that there are no such principles. Teleology asserts that there are.

For example, the view of philosophical naturalism is that man sees because he has eyes. Teleology, on the other hand, holds both that man sees because he has eyes and has eyes so that he can see. As Aristotle wrote in support of teleology, "Nature adapts the organ to the function, and not the function to the organ" (De partib., animal., IV, xii, 694b; 13). Lucretius replied in support of philosophical naturalism: "Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use." (De nat. rerum, IV, 833; cf. 822-56)

Contemporary creationists have taken a more subtle approach to the question of teleology. Giuseppe Sermonti wrote:

What, then, is the answer to our question 'Is there a purpose in Nature?' To be sure, an answer to this kind of question is not something that can come out of a conference in which each participant is expected to represent and maintain his position. There were several different answers and reference has been made to these above. Meanwhile, what is important is that the question was put forth in scientific circles, and the fact that it was put forth in the heart of Europe which is itself seeking a connection, a meaning, a purpose. When all is said and done, what else is purpose if not a self-questioning as to where one is going – what else, if not the posing of a question to oneself that expects a reply? [1]

In the view of Giuseppe and many other creationists, scientists should neither make dogmatic assertions about purpose nor deny the possibility of its existence. Instead, the project of science should above all be seeking to understand the purpose of the universe by fearlessly asking the hardest questions.

Teleology and the philosophy of science

While teleology and philosophical naturalism ask different questions than those asked by science, they play an extremely important role in the philosophy of science. For if one begins with the philosophical belief that there is no design or purpose in the universe, then one naturally concludes that creation science is nonsense, before evaluating its facts and conclusions, because it seeks purpose where none exists. If, on the other hand, one begins with the philosophical belief that there is design or purpose in the universe, then one may naturally conclude that creationism is true, even without considering the alternative of evolution.

Both of these philosophical assumptions are dangerous to the progress of science, because they both eliminate a realm of possibilities before even evaluating the evidence. A philosophical naturalist cannot even permit creationism as a possibility, because he has already assumed that there is no design or purpose in the universe. The same traps lay open to creationists who start with the assumption that God created the universe in a particular way, without even-handedly evaluating the evidence.

For that reason, a sophisticated philosophy of science must be initially neutral on the question of teleology and philosophical naturalism. It must allow for the possibility of design and the possibility of naturalistic explanations. Once both possibilities are allowed, then the scientific evidence can and should lead to the correct position.

Many creationists, of course, believe that the evidence for creation is so overwhelming as to be absolutely obvious to an open mind. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans;

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:19

Classical Greek teleology

Plato summarized the argument for teleology as follows in Phaedo, arguing that it is error to fail to distinguish between the ultimate Cause, and the mere means by which the ultimate Cause acts:

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 possibly be put, 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 99bc)

Thus, it is argued, those who attempt to explain nature in terms of nature alone are forced to deny the ultimate binding Good in the universe, and hope that they will someday discover a "stronger and more immortal Atlas" to hold their universe together.

Similarly, Aristotle argued that it is error to attempt to reduce all things to mere necessity, because such thinking neglects the purpose, order, and final cause that causes the apparent necessity. He wrote:

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; these are causes in the sense of being the moving and efficient instruments and the material. …to say that necessity is the cause is much as if we should think that the water has been drawn off from a dropsical patient on account of the lancet alone, not on account of health, for the sake of which the lancet made the incision. (Aristotle, Generation of Animals V.8, 789a8-b15)

In Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy the traditional term for teleology is final cause and deals with purpose built into nature, built into matter as its very nature. Final cause is contrasted with efficient cause. Efficient causes generate things, so that if you were to throw a tennis ball to the ground, the action of your arm forcing the tennis ball down is the efficient cause. There is another level of cause however, and the final cause or purpose for doing so is different from the efficient cause. For instance, the final cause may have been you being able to prepare yourself to serve first to an opponent to then begin a tennis match.

Extrinsic and intrinsic finality

Teleology depends on the concept of a final cause or purpose inherent in all beings. There are two types of such causes, intrinsic finality and extrinsic finality.

  • Extrinsic finality consists of a being realizing a purpose outside the being realizing it, for the utility and welfare of other beings. For instance, minerals are designed to be used by plants which are in turn designed to be used by animals.
  • Intrinsic finality consists of a being realizing a purpose by means of a natural tendency directed toward the perfection of its own nature. In essence, it is what is good for a being. For example, physical masses obey universal gravitational tendencies that did not evolve, but are simply a cosmic given. Similarly, life is intended to behave in certain ways so as to preserve itself from death, disease, and pain.

Over-emphasizing extrinsic finality is often criticized as leading to the anthropic attribution of every event to God’s will, and mere superstition. For instance;

If I hadn’t been at the store today, I wouldn’t have found that $100 on the ground. God must have intended for me to go to the store so I would find that money.

Such abuses were criticized by Francis Bacon ("De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum," III, iv), Descartes ("Principia Philosophiæ", I, 28; III, 2, 3; "Meditationes", III, IV), and Spinoza (Ethica, I, prop. 36 app.).

Intrinsic finality, while more subtle, provides the basis for the teleological argument for the existence of God, and its modern counterpart, intelligent design. Proponents of teleology argue that it resolves a fundamental defect in philosophical naturalism. They argue that naturalism focuses exclusively on the immediate causes and mechanisms of events, and forgets to look for the reason for their synthesis. Thus, it is argued, if we take a clock apart, we discover in it nothing but springs, wheels, pivots, levers etc. But having explained the mechanism which causes the revolutions of the hands on the dial, is it reasonable to say that the clock was not made to keep time?

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