“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” – Steven Weinberg, theoretical physicist.
Our next special problem is the place of teleology in the human experience of reality. The Webster’s unabridged dictionary definition of teleology starts with these two listings: (1) the doctrine that final causes exist, (2) the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.1 Aristotle worked out this first meaning of teleology referring to the goal of actions as their ‘final cause” – in contrast to the material, formal, and efficient causes.2 Dagobert Runes distinguishes teleology as the explanation of the past and the present in terms of the future instead of the reverse as is typical of mechanics (or physics).3 However he does not believe this requires personal consciousness, volition, or intent. On the other hand, other philosophers identify teleology as purposive or goal-directed activity.4 In speaking of natural phenomena, teleology typically involves a dialectic about functional selection versus intelligent design.
As was the case with human destiny, most philosophical textbooks ignore or provide only a superficial treatment of teleology, but we require a more detailed investigation. Why? Because perhaps the most pivotal consideration in regards to a meaningful life is whether reality itself is meaningful. Underlying that enigma is the interrogation of common words like purpose, function, intention, design, chance, and trajectory. We also need to establish criteria for the word – “meaning.”
This section will be divided into the following parts:
- Chance, Complexity, and Chaos
- Natural Selection
- Nagel’s Natural Teleology
- Intelligent Design
- Criteria for “Meaning”
This area is in my opinion the least clarified by philosophy as it stands today, and by far the most important area which has been neglected. If Professor Weinberg is correct (see epigram above), then despite humanism’s insistence to the contrary, our individual lives are as pointless as the universe. Let’s hope our investigation leads us to a different conclusion.
1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 1952.
2See post titled Causation dated 7/19/19 on this site.
3Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.315.
4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 8, page 88.