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Why Teleology?

kaleigh19's picture

Submitted by: Katharine Baratz 

In the summer of 1925, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow went head-to-head over high school teacher John Scopes’s controversial decision to teach evolution in his Tennessee classroom. According to the Butler Act of 1926, it was at that time illegal to teach, in any Tennessee classroom, “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” [1]. At the conclusion of what became one of the most famous trials in the 20th century, Scopes was found guilty after a mere nine-minute jury deliberation and ordered to pay a fine of 100 dollars.

The American educational system has seen a dramatic shift in pedagogy since then. The Butler Act was repealed in 1967 and by 1968 the Supreme Court had ruled that forbidding the teaching of evolution on the grounds of religious conviction was in violation with the First Amendment [2]. The American people, however, still feel a strong ambivalence towards evolution at the exclusion of more religious views, such as creationism and intelligent design, in the modern public school system. In fact, a recent poll indicated that over fifty percent of Americans believe that creationism and intelligent design should be taught as alternatives to evolution in public schools and between forty and fifty percent ascribe to either creationism or intelligent design [3].

Despite what Mayr refers to as “overwhelming evidence” to the contrary, clearly many Americans strongly prefer some kind of teleological, or goal-directed, view of human life. As philosopher Mark Bedau suggests, this is probably due to the fact that teleological views of biological processes reward those seeking answers with a “certain kind of knowledge,” [4]. From the arguments that various supporters and critics of Intelligent Design have made, I would argue that teleology may be preferable to some because it counteracts the destabilizing effect that evolution as an aimless process guided only by randomness, death, and survival can have on human self-perception. Teleology springs from the desire to conclude that we, as humans, are successful; that we are the significant results of progressive change for the better.

First of all, it is important to note that teleology is almost universally underwritten by a belief in God [5]. One of religion’s roles throughout the ages has been to explain why things are the way we perceive them to be. The sky is lit with lightning because Zeus is angry. That snake in the grass is limbless because God punished the serpent’s base seduction of Eve. Therefore, a function of religion is to explain individual natural phenomena, to explain a cause with a result. In other words, religion comes from an impulse to seek teleological stories with prescribed endings.

In looking at the world around us – the variety of life and the beauty of human capabilities and complexity – we are naturally driven to think of the present, our own existence, as an end to some story. As Pope Benedict XIV phrased it, life “presents an internal finality which arouses admiration,” [6]. When we tell the story of the world as a process of randomness in which change is the only constant, we cannot think of ourselves as finalities. We are forced to face the reality of being momentary halts in a story, single words in one middleish chapter of an epic novel. And it is precisely this anxiety that Benedict addresses in a homily: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God,” [7]. Teleology, then, reassures us that we, as individuals, are essential and carefully crafted end products.

Teleological stories not only reassure us of our individual centrality in the universe but also give our surroundings a sense of finality. The world is the way it is because God willed it so and it will not change. Kenneth Miller, a philosopher and critic of Intelligent Design, expounds on this point: the world of intelligent design is a static world “unable to adapt except at the whims of its designer,” [8]. To use course terminology, the story of teleology is non-narrative. Philip Johnson, who spearheaded the Intelligent Design movement, argues that teleology’s non-narrativity is at the heart of its appeal. Whereas evolution has only been a concept for the last 180 years, “Christianity is a permanent thing.” An inherently narrative story like evolution will inevitably fall out of favor, while religion “will still be a prominent part of the culture . . . It's just a matter of what is permanently good and true,” [9]. And perhaps the strongest observation to the importance of non-narrativity to the perpetuation of teleological stories is the fact that as evolution becomes increasingly accepted as a truer story than Intelligent Design or Creationism, it too becomes increasingly non-narrative.

Teleology is a good story because it reassures us that rather than being rolls of a die, each of us is intended and therefore important. Teleology further implies that we are safe, that neither our selves nor or world is changing in any significant way unless for the better. In certain ways, this may be a better story than that of evolution. Each of us, due to the limits on our perception and processing of the world, thinks ourselves to be the center of the world. To view the world, I must look around, effectively creating a sphere with me at the center. Additionally, there is no way that I can perceive change without some kind of signpost. I cannot tell that I have grown taller unless I try on last year’s jeans or stand against the pencil markings on my kitchen wall. I do not know that it is warmer today than it was yesterday unless I remember yesterday’s cold and the number of layers I had to wear. I have no proof that my species has evolved unless I compare myself against hominid species from 8,000 years ago. Change is only perceptible when it is relative. Otherwise, I, and my surroundings, appear to be constant. Teleology is selfish, for it is only when a wider scope of observations at which “I” is not the center that evolution becomes less wrong.

1.) “Scopes Trial.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 2/15/07.
2.) “Creation and Evolution in Public Education.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 2/15/07.
3.) Clemmitt, M. (2005, July 29). Intelligent design. CQ Researcher, 15, 637-660. Accssed 2/16/07, from CQ Researcher Online,
4.) Bedau, Mark. “Where’s the Good in Teleology?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. LII, No. 4, December 1992. p. 805.
5.) Ibid. 806.
6.) Quoted by Christoph Schonborn, “Finding Design in Nature,” The New York Times, July 7, 2005, p. A23.
7.) Ibid.
8.) Cited Clemmit.
9.) Ibid.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Beyond teleology?

Teleology is, by all evidence, indeed a "good story" for humans, in the sense that it is persistent. And I like your suggestions that this is so both because "Change is only perceptible when it is relative" (the observations summarized) and because "it reassures us that rather than being rolls of a die, each of us is intended and therefore important" (an influence through the "crack"). I'm also intrigued by your thought that teleology equates with "non-narrative" and is "selfish, for it is only when a wider scope of observations at which "I" is not the center that evolution becomes wrong". Galileo displaced humanity from the center of the universe, "so that each of us can now be seen as the centre, or none at all" (Brecht's Galileo), and Darwin humanity from the center of living things .... might humans and human culture further evolve to a point where we accept (perhaps even enjoy) the notion that there is no fixed center at all (cf /sci_cult/lesswrong/descartes/index.html)? And narratives serve the purpose of expanding space rather than defining it?