Spaemann on teleology

One of the main themes of The Last Superstition is the delusional character of the moderns’ project of banishing teleology or final causality from our conception of the natural world. As I argue in the book, not only have there never been any good arguments in favor of this project, there are powerful arguments against it, and I try to show how developments in contemporary philosophy and science only reinforce the judgment that irreducible teleology exists in nature from top to bottom.

It is the “top” level, though – that is to say, the level of human thought and action – that has always posed the most obvious barrier to a thoroughgoing teleological eliminativism. Consider this passage from Robert Spaemann’s recent essay “The Unrelinquishability of Teleology” (in Ana Marta Gonz├ílez, ed., Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law):

De-teleologization is inconclusive because it is itself a human endeavor and therefore it is oriented towards aims. If the intentionality of human action is a victim of anti-teleological reductionism, then any theory, including the reductionist theory, will fall, as a systematic misinterpretation of itself. Nietzsche was conscious of this consequence. He considered that the end of the idea of truth had arrived, and an era of new myths had begun.

If we consider that authentic teleology, in the sense of Konrad Lorenz’s concept of fulguration, is not a fundamental category, but an emerging property, non reducible to its conditions of origin, then we must ask ourselves when this property appears for the first time. Normally, the answer is that it appeared with conscious human action. But this is misleading. Conscious action only takes place as a secondary appropriation or rejection of tendencies that have, first, a character of instinctive impulse. We are not stones that will and act; we are living beings that will and act. The decision to eat or fast is simply the conscious appropriation or rejection of that which is forewarned in hunger, and also somehow in the way of ‘tending-towards’. And wherever we go to aid non-human life, it behaves in a similar way. One can only aid a being that directs itself towards something, but is too weak to reach it. There is only teleology in human action because and insofar as there is a direction in natural tendency. (pp. 292-93)

The first paragraph summarizes the point well. Human action is inherently teleological – and this includes the mental activity of trying to come up with a way to banish teleological notions from our conception of human action. Hence the very attempt completely to banish teleology is self-undermining. Some philosophers have, of course, tried to show that human action need not be understood in teleological terms, but these attempts face insuperable difficulties, as Scott Sehon and G. F. Schueler have argued in two important recent books.

But even if such an attempt could succeed, we would still be left with human thought and the intentionality or “directedness” of the mind beyond itself that is its hallmark. Since to deny that there is any irreducible teleology in nature just is to deny that there is any inherent “directedness” beyond themselves in material objects and processes, a consistently anti-teleological position will necessarily be an eliminative materialist one, denying the existence of the mind itself. As we have recently seen, naturalists like Alex Rosenberg realize this. What they don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, is that their position is utterly incoherent (and that studiously avoiding words like “belief” changes this not one whit, as we saw here and here). As Spaemann puts it, such theories “systematically misinterpret themselves”; in this case, they present themselves as “scientific,” as “rational,” as best “supported” by the “evidence,” etc. – even though these very concepts too must be abandoned if we deny intentionality. Indeed (as Spaemann also notes, following Nietzsche) truth itself must be abandoned, and we are left with “new myths” – for instance, myths about “successor concepts” that will replace “truth,” “meaning,” “mind,” etc. in some glorious neuroscientific future that the eliminativist himself does not claim to be able to describe. This is even less plausible than Marxist tosh about how new communist man will “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner” – and even more intellectually and morally corrupting.

Spaemann’s second paragraph is particularly interesting, though. Here he makes the important point that it will not do for the anti-teleologist even to concede that “directedness” exists at the level of human thought, while denying that it exists elsewhere. For at least where conscious choices are concerned, they are typically made against the background of pre-existing tendencies – that is to say, pre-existing instances of “directedness” – that are not chosen, and which we either consent to or resist only after they come into being. For example, I am aware of a desire for food that arises from a source outside of my control before I choose whether or not to act to get food or instead act to suppress the desire. The “directedness” of the desire exists before the “directedness” of the act I choose, and the former directedness also exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom even if the latter does not.

As Spaemann goes on to note, however, human beings and even the biological realm in general are by no means the only loci of irreducible natural teleology, since (as I also discuss at length both in TLS and in Aquinas, and have touched on in earlier posts) “the connection of causa finalis and causa efficiens is unrelinquishable. The concept of cause, in general, falls together with the concept of finality.” (p. 293) In other words, wherever A is the efficient cause of some effect or range of effects B, that can only be because generating B is the final cause of A. Otherwise there is no reason why A should generate B specifically rather than C, D, or no effect at all, and efficient causation becomes unintelligible – as indeed it did in modern philosophy, as the puzzles raised by David Hume make evident. (Again, see the works cited above for the full story.)

Spaemann notes as well that the concept of a persisting subject goes too once we abandon teleology, citing in illustration the bizarreries of Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity (and once again echoing themes from TLS). So too, Spaemann argues, does the concept of motion. No surprise at all to those who know their Aristotle, and in particular the theory of act and potency – closely allied to the notion of final cause, and still a live issue today, even if not always under that label. There is no end to the madness that follows from denying the existence of ends in nature.
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