I. Definition and Key Ideas

Teleology, from the Greek word telos, meaning “purpose” or “end,” is the study of goals, ends, purposes, and destinies–if they exist, but few philosophers believe they do.  Humans and other organisms have purposes and goals that drive their behavior.


Artifacts, like knives and televisions, seem to have purposes built into them—by humans.  Goals and purposes seem, at first examination, inherently psychological.  So, many philosophers figure that only conscious beings and their creations can have teleology.

Nature and Teleology

Naturally, during the ages of humanity when nearly everyone believed in gods, it wasn’t a problem to give purposes to nature, since nature was thought to be a something created by a conscious being—god.  And even philosophers without traditional religious beliefs felt compelled by the apparent intelligence of nature’s ‘design’ to assume that nature is teleological in some sense.  It’s perhaps impossible to regard the products of evolution, such as a bird’s wing, without seeming to see purpose.  But now that the theory of natural selection has shown how organisms can evolve without purpose, most philosophers and scientists agree that nature has no teleology, and that to ascribe teleology to nature is a form of ignorance associated with mythologies like Creationism.

Some people interpret evolution as a way that nature comes to have real teleology without intention or design.  In other words, perhaps natural law has no inherent purposes but also, perhaps evolution puts real purpose into nature.  Nearly everything in biology is the way it is because of its function–eyes are for seeing—but that kind of talk implies that the evolution of the eye was caused by its purpose, rather than the process of random mutation and natural selection.

The accidental development of conscious beings and all the circumstances required to support life–stars of the right kind, planets of the right kind, natural elements of the right kind, etc.–seems too “special” to have occurred randomly.  Physicists have been troubled by the fact that nature seems precisely tuned to produce conscious beings! This is called the Anthropic principle—the idea that the universe is the way it is because conscious beings live in it.  But, most thinkers now agree that this purposefulness is an illusion–an artifact of our accidental perspective; if there were a zillion other universes out there without life, we wouldn’t know. Instead of the universe being finely tuned for us, we just happen (inevitably) to be in a universe that supports life.

II. The History of Teleology

Teleology, although named by Christian von Wolff in 1728, originated in the western world with Plato and Aristotle.  None of the ancient Eastern philosophies seem to have said much about teleology. Plato and Aristotle substantially agreed, like virtually everyone before the modern age, that the purposefulness of nature was self-evident.  So much so, that they described ideas ignoring nature’s purposefulness as “absurd”; they were arguing against the earlier ideas of Democritus and Lucretius who promoted what we now call accidentalism – which is the modern standard scientific view, that the immediate physical causes of events are the only causes.

Plato believed that the natural purposes of things were to fulfill their potential for goodness, inherited from his “Platonic forms,” the abstract but real ideals from which, he believed, material things gained their forms and qualities. Aristotle did not believe in Plato’s forms; he felt that natural things had inherent natural purposes in some other sense, never well-defined.

Aristotle distinguished four kinds of cause, with “final cause” being the purpose or end of something, and he argued that it was a severe form of stupidity to think only of immediate causes; Aristotle would have said, for example, that to describe the evolution of eye-balls without recognizing that their final cause – the benefit of seeing – is their primary cause, is stupid.  We’ll elaborate on this debate in the next section.

After Aristotle, Immanuel Kant famously analyzed teleology in the 18th century, in a way consistent with Aristotle, and which influenced the philosophies of Hegel and Marxism, where history and humanity have some kind of natural destiny.  Although Kant’s philosophy of natural teleology was inconsistent with modern science, his thorough analysis is a foundation of the modern discussion.

Since the acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and other modern theories of natural origin, such as the Big Bang, it’s mostly taken for granted that nature can have no teleology, being un-intended and un-designed.  Yet, it’s not clear that it’s necessary to be a creationist to consider that natural ends might play some causal role in nature.

III. Controversies

Is nature teleological? This is the kind of controversy where people on each side feel the answer is too obvious to even argue. Most people devoted to reason and science deny categorically that nature has purposes, while most without that commitment consider the purposiveness of nature self-evident.  It can be a complex and subtle debate, but the core conflict is clear:

  • It makes no sense to describe any part of any organism without reference to the function it serves; eye-balls see, legs walk, livers detoxify, etc. that’s why they evolved; they wouldn’t exist otherwise.
  • It makes no sense to describe inanimate nature as having intentions, plans, designs, or goals. Only organisms have those things, and they don’t intend their own evolution!  The theory of natural selection shows exactly how purposeful biological forms evolve accidentally.

Therefore, there is an unavoidable conflict between the purposelessness of natural law, and the purposefulness of living forms.  One can take a variety of positions on this debate, without disagreeing with either of the statements above:

  • Although nature is purposeless, it does no harm to talk about organisms in teleological terms; it’s just a convenient way to speak.
  • The fact that evolution seemingly puts purpose into nature is profound, and cannot be extracted without losing something; despite the truth of natural selection, it is necessary to talk about organisms in teleological terms.
  • The whole point of natural selection is to explain evolution without teleology, so it is crucial not to talk about organisms in teleological terms.

These are all respectable scientific positions.  But, no competent scientists would consider the idea that organisms are intentionally designed by a supernatural intelligence, because there is no evidence for that, and no need for such an explanation.

However, there are yet other ways in which teleology might find its way back into nature. Quantum theory has proven that observation plays a role in shaping experienced ‘reality.’  That’s such a new understanding, that nobody’s quite sure what to make of it yet, but if it means that human beings select reality in some way, that could be a teleological issue.  Quantum theory also implies that all matter and energy are interconnected in a way that transcends space and time.  This might sound mystical, but it has been experimentally confirmed quite a few times.  And some respectable physicists now believe that future events contribute to determining past events, all the time.  If this is true, then natural events literally could be caused by their ends.  Few philosophers are aware of these implications of quantum theory yet, so perhaps we will be up for another revolution in thought about teleology in the future.


IV.Famous Quotes about Teleology

Quotation #1

“According to Teleology, each organism is like a rifle bullet fired straight at a mark; according to Darwin, organisms are like grapeshot of which one hits something and the rest fall wide.

For the teleologist an organism exists because it was made for the conditions in which it is found; for the Darwinian an organism exists because, out of many of its kind, it is the only one which has been able to persist in the conditions in which it is found.

Teleology implies that the organs of every organism are perfect and cannot be improved; the Darwinian theory simply affirms that they work well enough to enable the organism to hold its own against such competitors as it has met with, but admits the possibility of indefinite improvement.” ― Thomas Henry Huxley, Criticism on “The origin of species”

Huxley’s analysis well describes how Darwin’s theory of natural selection contradicts natural teleology; it is an illusion created by the fact that we only see the end results of evolution, not all the creatures who died young because they weren’t well adapted.   Huxley’s explanation emphasizes the difference in causality between a teleological theory and Darwin’s theory and the idea that the forms of organisms today are no kind of “end, but rather simply the forms that worked well enough for the species to survive this long.

Quotation #2

“The great cognitive shift is an expansion of consciousness from the perspectival form contained in the lives of particular creatures to an objective, world-encompassing form that exists both individually and intersubjectively. It was originally a biological evolutionary process, and in our species it has become a collective cultural process as well. Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.” ― Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel, a well-respected philosopher, presents a popular theory of natural teleology; that the development of consciousness to the human level and beyond is a natural purpose of the universe; it is the universe itself becoming conscious.  In a sense, it is undeniable that human consciousness constitutes the universe becoming conscious of itself.  The idea that this is a natural purpose rather than the accidental process of natural selection is still inconsistent with science.  Yet, many philosophers and scientists suspend judgment about whether Nagel might be right in some sense, especially since there is not yet any convincing theory of consciousness.

V. Types of Teleology

  1. Natural teleology: hypothetically, the inherent purpose or end of a natural entity; in Aristotle’s classic example, the oak tree is the natural purpose of the acorn.
  2. Cybernetics: the study of mechanical systems with built in goals, e.g. a thermostat, a self-adjusting valve, or the human metabolism; note that robots and artificial intelligences will all incorporate cybernetics when they eventually work.
  3. Consequentialism: any philosophy claiming that “the ends justify the means,” such as utilitarianism.  In other words, teleological ethics.

VI. Teleology versus Deontology

Since teleology may properly apply on to conscious beings, it has played a central role in many discussions about ethics.  Deontology is the leading competitor against teleology as the basis for ethical decisions.  Teleological ethics, says that one’s ethical decisions should be based on final goals and ends; deontology says that ethics should be based on commitments to moral principles, without regard for ends.  A teleologist would say that one should kill an innocent person if that would save two other innocent lives; a deontologist would say that if killing is wrong, it remains wrong, even if it could save lives.

VII.  Teleology in Popular Culture

Example #1: X-men

The X-men films, based on comic books, concern the adventures of “mutants”—modern human beings with astounding powers, granted to them by genetic mutation.  In this trailer, Patrick Stewart describes their mutations as evolution leaping forward, skipping over 1,000s of years of natural selection.  Unfortunately (because they’re fun films), this is a teleological model of evolution completely in contradiction to Darwin’s theory.  It’s teleological because it assumes that genetic mutation is inherently directed towards useful mutations, like those of the heroes in the film.  In reality, most mutations are completely useless, and useful adaptations absolutely need 1,000s or millions of years to develop by accumulating tiny accidentally useful mutations.

Example #2: Star Trek’s Spock and “the needs of the many”:

A recurring them in the Star Trek film franchise, first voiced by the ever-logical Mr. Spock is that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” justifying a variety of heroic sacrifices and risks.  This idea embodies teleological ethics, or consequentialism, as discussed in section five.  The end results of an action—the salvation of many lives—justifies the sacrifice of one life in the present (first Spock’s, and later Kirk’s).


Which of the following is not teleological?





Which of the following is not a teleological interpretation of evolution?





In which of the following areas is teleology not considered unscientific?





Which of the following is not a teleological idea?





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these <abbr title="HyperText Markup Language">HTML</abbr> tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>