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Science without Purpose: Suppressing the Teleological Instinct

Max86's picture
There is a striking tendency among scientists to call attention to their humility. That is, they acknowledge their endeavor as fundamentally humble: the scope of their research is focused, their prose wholly transparent. Confronted with such statements, one might ask: Why is humility integral to science? The answer is that science recognizes the imperative of every Why? as the supreme human conceit, and much abashed, it is always paradoxically seeking to limit the very indulgence it imperatively hinges upon. In other words, science is embarrassed by the insolence of all imperatives, for it duly comprehends the artificiality of must and should in every observation of nature.

The scientist is embarrassed (not disdainful) because he recognizes the insolence of imperative queries as the inescapable human propensity for the teleological, which is the instinctual ascription of purpose to all things. He sees that every Why? betrays itself as a leading question, a collusion between an interrogative and the imperative modal of which that interrogative ought to be ignorant. These two grammatical agents seek to pass themselves off as components in the following operation:

(Why? + Insight = Must!)  Law of Natural Imperatives

However, the scientist apprehends a different scheme:

(Why? + Must! = Why Must!? = Purpose) 
Teleological Fallacy

The scientist recognizes the desperation evinced in the violent convergence of punctuation -(!?)- seen above, and he is ashamed for his human complicity in it. Therefore, he still asks Why?, but only in so far as he must. The Why? of Science is therefore a continually suppressed impetus for the disciplined observations and humble claims the scientist makes. As in all human ventures, Why? drives science. However the scientific Why? operates not as a present component, but as an experienced absence; the scientist experiences Why? but will not attempt to manifest it. 

It takes great fortitude to suppress the teleological tendency, and in their humility, scientists may forget the extent to which other humans indulge. After all, scientists are currently the world's great ascetics; they practice a conceptual-discipline of immense proportions. They are, figuratively speaking, the best adapted to solitude, for they are not making friends (or enemies) of nature. In other words, by resisting the ascription of purpose, they resist the concomitant attribution of agency to things incapable of it. Why? is the loneliest question. 

The loneliest of creatures, children serve as an auspicious example of agency-ascription. Notice that they are always asking Why?, but also answering it for themselves, and with far fewer reservations than adults. In such auto-matic responses, a child will often commit an agency-attribution error. For example, a child might ask me: "Why does the sun set faster in winter?" Having a basis in science, I respond: "Because our hemisphere is tilted away from the sun during that part of the year." Not satisfied with my response, he poses his own answer: "No, the sun is sleepier because he's cold," the child contends. Even better, there may be instances where the question itself contains the ascription of agency: i.e. "Why is the sun sleepier in winter?" There is perhaps no purer Why Must!?

However, the teleological drive - the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world - influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even "scientists" may falter.

More specifically, let us turn our attention to an article recently composed for the American Psychiatry Journal, "Sadness and Loss: Toward a Neurobiopsychosocial Model." (1) The article seeks to better understand acute moments of sadness, as it seems highly imperative to produce a more scientific qualification for what it means to be sad. True to its title, it goes through several studies that list respectively phenomenological observations, neurobiological data, and neural circuitry readings. Yet, more than simply noting that oxytocin transmission release appears to reduce separation distress, the authors cannot resist asking Why? In seeking to understand sadness, they give it an "active role," the implication being that sadness is an adaptive emotion that functions as a productive mood-state. Though the authors do not go so far as to ascribe inherent purpose to sadness, we might consider how a general audience processes such literature.

Let us imagine, for instance, intrigued by the notion of sadness as active problem solver, one next consults an article on "Is it Really Bad to be Sad?" (2) Very early on, one is confronted with these words: "Sadness, they [ostensibly scientists] argue, serves an evolutionary purpose - and if we lose it, we lose out." Within the next paragraph one finds another grim warning concerning anti-depressants. "'We're fooling around with part of our biological make-up,'" (my emphasis) says a clinical social worker. What the neither author nor the social worker may realize is that they are channeling the modern teleological fallacy par excellence: Evolutionary purpose.
So very humble, scientists forget perhaps that these words are teleologically saturated - if not for them, for those others not practiced in the suppression of purpose.

Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature's architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.

Although such thought may appear benign enough, there have been disastrous consequences for the teleological mystification of nature, evolution, or the unconscious. The belief in the moral instinct is highly prevalent today, but Leon Kass' "Wisdom of Repugnance" had previous incarnations. (3) Perhaps we have forgotten that the monstrous indifference practiced in the Holocaust had its basis (as all ideologies do) in Why Must!? Unable to weather the solitude of a world without inherent purpose, Nazi Germany invoked the Law of Natural Imperatives, under which the purpose of "positive law" is displaced onto human beings as nature's chosen embodiment of law. The natural superiority of Aryan race was the only Insight required to furnish an intractable Must!

Have we progressed past such teleological mystification? Let us see. Take for instance Jonas Mekas' biting polemic, "Experimental Film in America" (1955). (4) In his essay, Mekas accuses "American film poets" as having attempted to "destroy reality" through "shallow, incomprehensible, and impotent" avant-garde cinema. He goes on to claim that the "young film poets" must learn to present a "clearer and deeper understanding of the function and mission of the artist," for they "lack what makes any art valuable to humanity: a deeper insight into the human soul, emotions, experiences..." (my emphasis) Still today, these words strike assuredly familiar tones, and they indicate a greater problem than simple philistinism. The human drive to see purpose in all things is almost inextricable from our desire for meaning. We easily mistake this propensity for an infallible instinct toward meaning or value, forgetting entirely that teleology is not instinct, but abstract human thought. Such mystification may cloud art criticism and natural science alike, impacting our ability to construct our own meaning.

Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one's own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct "made" for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?


1. Peter J. Freed, M.D., and J.John Mann, M.D., Sadness and Loss: Toward a Neurobiopsychosocial Model, American Psychiatric Association, 2007,
2. Jessica Marshall, Is it really bad to be sad?, NewScientist, January 14 2009,
3. Steven Pinker, The Moral Instinct, New York Times, January 13 2008,
4. Jonas Mekas, The Experimental Film in America (1955), within P. Adams Sitneys "Film Culture Reader."


Paul Grobstein's picture

meaning without teleology

"The human drive to see purpose in all things is almost inextricable from our desire for meaning. We easily mistake this propensity for an infallible instinct toward meaning or value, forgetting entirely that teleology is not instinct, but abstract human thought. Such mystification may cloud art criticism and natural science alike, impacting our ability to construct our own meaning."

Makes sense. So what are the implications for better understanding the brain? Can it function without "teleology"? And does that in turn give us a way to do something to avoid the easy "mistake"? Along those lines, see