Saturday, April 02, 2005

Natural Teleology

The universe itself may not have any goals, but people certainly do, and this is reflected in many of our (purportedly 'descriptive') concepts. Some of these were touched on in an earlier post:
For example, the primary evaluative criteria for functional concepts, such as ‘knife’ or ‘pen’, are internal to the concept. Knowing that a good pen must write legibly is part and parcel of knowing what a pen is. Pre-established internal criteria also arise in the assessment of roles, such as ‘father’, ‘farmer’, or ‘patriot’. One could not appeal to just any old fact as evidence that someone is a good father. Descriptive elements put constraints on what might legitimately feature in evaluations.

Belief is an important concept with internal teleology. We say that belief 'aims at' truth, from which we can infer that a false belief is, in this respect, a bad one. (It is this teleology which grounds epistemic normativity.) John Searle makes the similar suggestion that "it is internal to the notion of a statement (descriptive word) that a self-contradiction (descriptive word) is a defect (evaluative word)." Searle also points out that normativity can arise within an institution: if you make a promise, you ought to keep it, and if the umpire says you are ‘out’, then you ought to leave the field. One may engage in an external critique of institutions, but at least from within they create their own normative standards, against which ‘ought’ claims can be assessed.

The most important source of natural teleology is surely desire. Desires aim to change the world. They make the world itself assessable according to whether it has moulded itself to our desires or not. We can evaluate it objectively, relative to the desires of ourselves and others.

So, it seems to me that the fact-value gap is founded on a failure to recognise human desires, and other such sources of teleology, as part of the real world. What do you think?

[P.S. My first 'bloggiversary' would have been back on March 19th, but it passed without my even noticing. Huh. Maybe next year...]


  1. Happy A.

    Yes, I agree with the post, and I've had that view for many years. But over the years, I've also noticed a parasitical concept of teleology in human nature: the disposition to desire. I recommend it to you, so that perhaps you might not overlook it as long as I did.

    An Aristotelian might say that there are objective purposes and functions of the sort spelled out in NE. The reply is yes, but those brilliant insights of Aristotle's just get at our dispositions to desire, which, wired in as they may be, and independent as they may be of what one happens to desire at the moment, are nevertheless not purposes that are independent of desire in the sense that Aristotelian or Thomistic natural law theorist means them to be.

    There is no conflict between British sentimentalism and the NE. Maybe Hume's inquiry on morals is an example of the coherence of the two, with all his talk of virtues.

  2. You will be interested in a new wrinkle in natural teleology, elaborated at Ontogeny is teleological, and the universe is ontogenetic. And human beings are an essential, transitional form in the ontogeny of the universe.


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