The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Reviving Teleology

origami figure of moses in a desert

“Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating [good] habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure.”

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

For millennia, it was clear to humanity that objective values had at least some purpose, even if it was unclear what that purpose was. The values seemed to stem from a supernatural source, forever beyond the possibility of our cognitive understanding. That source had many names: God, the gods, the Platonic forms, the demiurge, etc. But with the secularization of society, the source of those values is becoming less clear. And without a clear source, the purpose of such values also becomes less clear. Is there really any such purpose? And where, then, is that purpose to be found?

I first want to make sure that we’re on the same page when it comes to objective values, since one could, of course, just believe that such values fail to exist and thus fail to have any purpose. Indeed the case for subjectivism seems, at least initially, to be a very good one in a naturalistic world. The argument is essentially this: if there is no supernatural arbiter of value, then everyone may decide for themselves what is valuable. At first glance, this argument appears plausible. Who, other than God, may decide what is good or bad? Thus, if there is no God, there are no objective values. But once we consider the implications of this argument, we see that it must have some fault.

Consider the paradox of intolerance as raised by Karl Popper. In this thought experiment, a society structures itself to be maximally tolerant, on the basis of the equality of all subjective values. In this way, the values of the intolerant (the bigots, the Nazis, etc.) are given as much standing in society as the values of the tolerant. Soon, however, the intolerant ideologies take over, for the tolerant do not push back against them; after all, why would they if all subjective values ought to hold equal standing? The society then devolves into intolerance, with the bigoted ideology prevailing. Is this a good society? Many have the intuition that it objectively is not. For we can’t merely say that it subjectively fails to be good, or we become the tolerant of the intolerant, complicit in the overthrow of the tolerant ideology. Following this paradox, Popper concludes that though tolerance is a virtue, an excess of tolerance is a vice. In other words, there is an Aristotelian golden mean of tolerance, lying somewhere between tolerance and intolerance (of course, leaning on the side of tolerance).

The subjectivist about values finds themselves in a similar paradox. They cannot cogently argue that all values are subjective without tacitly endorsing bigotry. (Actually, they may find themself in an even simpler paradox where subjectivity itself lacks objective value!) Instead, they must apply a kind of Aristotelian golden mean to subjectivism. They may conclude that the vast majority of historically held “objective values” fail to truly be objective, while having to concede that some objective values genuinely exist.

Then we (hopefully) agree that there are at least some objective values, like the proper amount of tolerance, and plausibly virtues like courage, love, beauty, and wisdom. With the lack of a supernatural arbiter of those values, however, we are left in a strange situation. Where do these values emerge from? And do they have a purpose? Nietzsche made such a point with his quote that “God is dead’’. The existentialists, following Nietzsche, argued that the source of those values is the individual. However, as we’ve seen, treating values with such subjectivity leads to paradox. To answer these questions in a non-existential, non-subjective way, then, we need a revival of teleology.

Teleology is the study of telos, which means purpose or final cause. The telos of an acorn, for example, is an oak tree, the telos of a word processor is the writing and formatting of documents, and the telos of marriage may be a happy and fulfilling life, among other things.

Teleology is often compared to etiology, which is the study of origin, or first cause. The origin of an acorn, ironically, is also an oak tree. The origin of the word processor is the leagues of computer scientists who led to its creation. And the origin of a marriage is (hopefully) the love that first sparked between two lovers. We have a more common name for etiology: natural science. That is, natural science explains why something is the way it is, with respect to its causal history. One goal of science is to go all the way back to the beginning of the universe and find plausible initial conditions and natural laws that can explain the causal history of every current event and object. But even a perfect natural science cannot tell us the telos of those events and objects. One might, at first glance, suppose that it can. After all, science can tell us that climate change is pointing toward a future where the planet is warmer, or life is pointing towards its expansion and evolution, or the universe as a whole is pointing toward its own heat death. But these are not purposes; they are merely futures or endings.

Consider, for example, Beethoven’s ninth symphony. We would not say that its first chord, a D minor, is its etiology. That is merely its beginning. Its commission by the London Philharmonic, as well as Beethoven, himself, is its etiology. Similarly, its final chord is not its teleology. Its teleology is the purpose for which it was written, which perhaps only Beethoven knows, but presumably has something to do with the reverence of joy. Returning to the relation of telos to natural science, then, we find that the heat death of the universe is not the telos of the universe, but rather merely its final chord.

On a similar note, natural science can attempt to tell us what our objective values are as well as their natural causes. We can plausibly know which neurobiological processes correspond to the feeling of love. And if love is objectively good, we may even be able to offer a socio-evolutionary explanation as to why we have reason to believe it is so. But science cannot explain why we live in a universe that has objectively good things (nor, for that matter, can it explain why we live in a universe with objectively bad things). To determine that, we need to postulate a telos of values.

I want to now recenter the dialectic so it is clear what I am suggesting. We have concluded that (1) objective values exist and (2) objective values have a telos. What I am not suggesting, then, is that we need to search to determine what the objective values are. I believe the psychologists and ethicists are already doing a very good job at that. Instead, I am only trying to raise the question of “Why are there objective values?” Similar questions have been used to “prove” the existence of God, but such proofs go far beyond what simply raising these questions can do. For example, the questions of “Why does mathematics seem to perfectly describe the physical universe?” and “Why is it that the universe, our solar system, and our planet seem perfectly ‘fine-tuned’ for life?” have been used in precisely this manner. But the former of these can be countered by postulating that mathematics is somehow metaphysically necessary (Platonism), or that it is nothing more than descriptive (nominalism), and the latter by properties of infinite combinatorics (a multiverse theory plus the anthropic principle). While the case of objective values is no doubt similar, I think it may be more difficult to answer.

I therefore suggest three routes for the ambitious teleologist to take. The first is perhaps the most straightforward: return to religion. Religion posits the existence of a supernatural arbiter who can serve as the source and, moreover, define the telos of objective values. Perhaps we live in a universe with beauty and love because of some higher purpose of some transcendental being. Unfortunately, religion carries with it the historical burden of corruption, war, colonization, the rejection of science, and systemic abuse, so I understand that this route may not be for everyone. The second is a kind of secular spirituality. This can be seen in movements like humanism,  some varieties of unitarian universalism, or even some practices of contemporary paganism. In those spiritualities are posited values considered to be objective, paired with their relative telos. It might be that tolerance and courage exist because the universe is simply a “good” place, or that it couldn’t have been any other way (as following, perhaps, from the necessity of the Platonic ideals, as in the case of mathematical Platonism). The final is the philosophical study of metaethics (or, more generally, meta-axiology), where the meaning and origin of ethics and values are debated, with a wide range of views and literature. It’s possible that the purpose of objective values are merely to inform us how best to live, or to communicate our attitudes in our societies. 

I understand that these suggestions may seem anticlimactic, and I wish I had more answers than questions. But I merely intend to raise awareness for this mysterious part of our world that often gets ignored, and encourage the reader to seek teleological answers, even though they may forever remain infinitely out of reach. Reality sinks much deeper than science can take us, and we may never get to the bottom. But nonetheless let us try to dive in.

Caleb Camrud is a Ph.D. student studying philosophy at Brown University, with a focus on metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

~ Also Read ~

Louisiana State University

The populace is ill-equipped at rigorously filtering through the wildfire of information produced by the digital age.