My purposeless heart

by Jonasan

It has become a truism that adding teleological explanations (that is, explanations concerned with ends and purposes) where they do not belong is the cause of many misunderstandings about the world. From one point of view the heart is indeed ‘for’ pumping blood, but this is not an objective, scientific observation. In saying that the heart is for pumping blood our observation has been blended with a series of values and preconceptions that we have brought along ourselves. It is certainly true that the heart does pump blood – at least in living humans – but any conclusions beyond that and we have ceased to be disinterested scientists.

This example is bound to cause discomfort to some people. Surely everyone would agree that the heart has a purpose – to pump blood. But is an appeal to general opinion like this a valid move? I think not. I said that our observations get coloured by extra baggage that we bring along ourselves when making them. In this case it just turns out that the baggage in question is the generally held preference for life over death in ourselves and (for the most part) in others too. The fact that this preference is near universal does not mean we should call it objective. This is especially true when we consider that organs such as the heart often evolved from previous systems with utterly different mechanisms to which we would ascribe utterly different purposes. Limbs that used to be ‘for’ swimming eventually were ‘for’ walking and finally ‘for’ carrying and manipulating objects. It is not unthinkable that some other organ might begin to aid in the circulatory process and after millions of years render the heart redundant – our legs already do something similar when we walk, working against gravity which would otherwise mean that blood pooled in our feet. By that point perhaps the heart would be ‘for’ timekeeping or something similar.

Of course it is legitimate to say that the heart is ‘for’ pumping blood, as long as we do not then go on to infer the existence of purposes, functions, ends or any kind of teleology outside of our own minds and our own interests. The heart pumps blood, and my subjective valuation of a ‘good’ heart is one that pumps blood efficiently and for as many years as possible. The point I am making is that we must think carefully when we talk about our relationship to the world to determine what goes where. If we were willing to grant objective purposes to our own organs we would have a case for objective purposes as entities at all. Once that has been allowed then a whole world of teleology would return like the vengeful spirit (Geist?) of the 19th century. Perhaps history would be for something? Maybe the world is for something? This would be a class of metaphysical entities which would work in bizarre and fascinating ways. Such a class may even exist (though I think it unlikely) but even if it does, I hope I’ve made it clear that my heart is not in it.

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