My purposeless species

by Jonasan

My most recent post was meant to make the reader reconsider our talk of purposes and ends. By focusing on one familiar example I hope I have shaken a few certainties. The first region we visit on our journey is called Telos – the land of final ends. It may seem backwards to start here, but our first business is actually to show that most of Telos itself is backwards. Not just in the case of bodily organs but in other, more important areas as well.

Historically talk of a telos was common. Just as objects have a telos (knives are for cutting things, car alarms are for annoying people) Aristotle held that each creature had a telos (fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly etc.) and that man’s telos was to live a happy, virtuous life. If squinted at from a distance, this idea seems parsimonious. But the comparison with tools should be considered deceiving. Tools are something we will discuss much later, since they have a very different status within teleology. Even if we focus solely on animals it seems an obviously simplistic model that the telos of fish is to swim and birds to fly. Aristotle’s biological knowledge being what it was, he would have inevitably included marine mammals and corvids in this category, especially because he was presumably unaware of their superior intellects. Adapting an Aristotelian framework to give some dignity to dolphins and ravens must either become a hierarchy of reason (with all the worrying implications for mentally subnormal humans) or continue to focus, like a pre-school book, on the fact that dolphins have fins and ravens have wings.

Determining an animal’s telos in the great chain of being does a very bad job of hiding the subjective artefacts which are smuggled in. A cow would be perturbed at its options for a telos and even Aristotle would have a hard time finding a telos for wasps. For that matter why could the human telos not be to stand perfectly upright on two legs. Being a vertical creature is surely noteworthy.

I am bullying Aristotle because he bequeaths us a long legacy of talking teleologically, ascribing purposes promiscuously. Of course there are very few nowadays who are invested in such a world-view, but a proper treatment of this topic demands a historical note too. Nor is it acceptable to blame the intellectual environment of the time – plenty of pre-Socratic philosophers were capable of investigating the world without a recourse to ends, and even if they had not, part of being a philosopher is taking responsibility for your intellectual environment and trying to shape it to yourself, rather than simply reformulating, recapitulating or re-clothing it.

Aristotle’s view may gain traction because he has managed to spin a metaphysical conjuration which ends in humans being obliged to live happy, virtuous lives. Philosophical conclusions which are ‘unobjectionable’ in this way should be investigated all the more rigorously lest we slide into stupid, accepting docility. Happiness and virtue sound wonderful, but the argument for them hangs loose and appendix-like. It is the word ‘abracadabra’ and the wave of the wand in the rabbit trick – a false explanation. And our prejudices are the secret hatch which really produces the rabbit; really convinces us that Aristotle is right. Any words of his would have given us a rabbit.