Emergent Teleology in Psychology, Physics and Biology

Robert C. Koons
January 19, 2003
Print ArticleABSTRACT—Aristotle, the inventor of biology, made final or teleological causation one of his four fundamental modes of explanation. Throughout the history of science, teleological modes of explanation have been employed quite commonly, most often in biology and in psychology and the other human sciences, but also in physics. In the modern period (by which I mean the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries), teleology came under heavy fire, first in physics (Galileo and Descartes), then biology (Darwin and 19th century German materialism), and finally in psychology (behaviorism and mind-brain identity theories).

The great problem for this tradition of hostility to teleology has been that of explaining (or explaining away) the very phenomena that led Aristotle and his followers to posit teleology in the first place. A number of recent theorists have described these phenomena as instances of a kind of information. The problem for modernists is to explain the presence (or apparent presence) of such information in a world consistently, in the last analysis, of nothing but blind, purposeless processes.

In this paper, I will focus primarily on the case of psychology. I will argue that the reality of mental causation and personal agency cannot be made to square with the modernist doctrine of physicalism: the thesis that the physical (and presumably ateleological) domain of reality is causally complete. However, I will argue in sections 13 through 15 that my conclusions about mental causation have implications for our view of physics and biology as well.

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