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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Teleology: Inorganic and Organic

In his essay, “Teleology: Inorganic and Organic,” David S. Oderberg examines the extent to which teleology can be found in the inorganic world. He argues that while there is no immanent causation in inorganic world, the non-living things follow the concept of function, which in the broadest sense is “any natural specific activity of a power or capacity of a thing."

Oderberg points out that while the idea of teleology in the world of non-living things may seem bizarre, the alternative viewpoint is even more so. It is not logical, he says, to believe that “there should be full-blooded teleology in the organic world, while the rest of the universe was a blooming, buzzing realm of wholly non-functional events.” His argues that teleology in the organic world should be regarded as a basis for there being teleology in the inorganic world.

Overall, this is a valuable article for understanding the ongoing philosophical discussion on the scope of teleology. Oderberg offers several plausible arguments for there being teleology in the inorganic world and he also tries to provide the answers to the possible objections to his arguments.

The essay is written in a rather combative mood. Here's an excerpt:
The banishment of teleology from the natural world during the early modern period is something from which philosophy has still not fully recovered. This period saw the almost wholesale rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics, and with it the ‘final causes’ that are a central part of that worldview. It is not merely that final causes were replaced by a mechanistic picture of nature bolstered by newtonian physics and general corpuscularianism, but that final causes and the Aristotelian ‘baggage’ associated with them were shunned with an almost visceral distaste bordering, it seems to me, on the pathological.  
One need only look at the hostility shown by Thomas Hobbes, at the end of Leviathan, to the ‘barbarisms’, ‘ignorance’ and ‘darkness’ of the ‘vain philosophy’ that allegedly permeated the schools, serving no other purpose than to maintain and enhance the power of the ‘Roman clergy’ and the Pope at the expense of the civil government. No less hostility, though expressed in slightly more measured tones, is found in Locke, Hume and Descartes. ‘Occult’ qualities and mysterious ‘substantial forms’ are out; law-governed mechanism is in. The idea that all objects have a natural tendency to some kind of motion or behaviour characteristic of their essence is interpreted as illicit mentalism: material objects do not ‘endeavour’ to go to the centre of the earth when dropped, ‘as if stones and metals had a desire, or could discern the place they would be at, as man does’. That this was an egregious misreading of Aristotle did nothing to dampen the re of animosity towards all things teleological.

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