Two directions for teleology: naturalism and idealism


Philosophers of biology claim that function talk is consistent with naturalism. Yet recent work in biology places new pressure on this claim. An increasing number of biologists propose that the existence of functions depends on the organisation of systems. While systems are part of the domain studied by physics, they are capable of interacting with this domain through organising principles. This is to say that a full account of biological function requires teleology. Does naturalism preclude reference to teleological causes? Or are organised systems precisely a naturalised form of teleology? In this paper I suggest that the biology of organised systems reveals several contradictions in the main philosophical conceptions of naturalism. To integrate organised systems with naturalism’s basic assumptions—that there is no theory-independent view for metaphysics, and that nature is intelligible—I propose an idealist solution.

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  1. 1.

    Mayr (2004) proposes that function analysis is precisely the naturalised causal paradigm that teleological and intelligent design views mistake for the supernatural. He identifies five ways of conceiving of teleology, four of which remain within the limits of naturalism: teleomatic processes, teleonomic processes, purposive behaviour, adapted features, and cosmic teleology. Mayr explains that the first four teleological forms are entirely consistent with the efficient direction of forces characteristic of an artisanal model of nature. Because the fifth refers to non-physical phenomena such as ‘perfection’ and ‘trend[s] in the world toward progress’—phenomena that lie outside the physical order of causal entailment—it fails to meet the criterion for ‘genuine science without any occult properties’ (Mayr 2004, p. 60).

  2. 2.

    On the one hand, etiological functions explain the function of a trait by reference to the history of how it evolved. The presence of a function is grounded on two conditions: (1) that the function is a consequence of the presence of the trait, and (2) that the function is the efficient cause of the trait. Millikan (1984, p. 17), who provided one of the definitive accounts of etiological functions, states that a trait is a ‘proper function’ if it positively influenced the natural selection of the trait. Cummins functions, on the other hand, explain the function of a trait by reference to the trait’s role in the operation of a biological system. Cummins (1975) recognized that any notion of function that aims to explain the presence of a part in an overall system carries implications of designed artifacts. Yet for this reason he argues that the notion of function must be considered as a useful heuristic device in empirical science but must not purport to explain the presence of the parts. To name the function of a trait is to ascribe to the trait a capacity in which we are interested because of its contribution to the capacity of a system. While the two views differ significantly and have their own well-noted difficulties (see Sober 2000, p. 85f.), both attribute the presence of the function as the efficient cause of the trait, and thus claim that function is entirely reducible to the laws of physics.

  3. 3.

    Henning (2009) argues that the standard way of explaining Aristotle’s causes through the example of an artifact, as Chase does, is misleading, for it equates Aristotle too closely with the artifact model of nature characteristic of modern science. I accept this point; here I simply want to highlight the directional difference between efficient and teleological entailment.

  4. 4.

    Proponents of this view generally endorse a variant of Developmental Systems Theory (DST), including biosemiotics, niche construction, and complexity theory, which focus on themes including self-organisation, spontaneous pattern formation, dissipative systems, and morphogenesis.

  5. 5.

    See Mossio and Saborido (2016).

  6. 6.

    I place Lewens in the subject naturalist camp, for instance, for in his book Organisms and Artifacts he is silent on the question of metaphysics in general and causal pluralism in particular.

  7. 7.

    Of course, as several philosophers have shown, functional pluralism can be applied to scientific domains to show that the linguistic function of terms such as ‘causation’ and ‘explanation’ are realized in terms of principles that are distinct to each scientific domain (see Amundson and Lander 1994).

  8. 8.

    Here I build on Gabriel’s (2011, p. 20) critique of ‘liberal naturalism’, which corresponds roughly to what I have been exploring as subject naturalism. Gabriel argues that by reducing human freedom to that which can appear as an object of natural science, subject naturalism ‘only succeeds as a theory by failing to reflect on the consistency of the conditions of itself as a theory.’

  9. 9.

    For example, Leiter and Weisberg (2012) labels Nagel’s book as a ‘broadside,’ and Daniel Dennett supposedly claimed that it ‘isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.’ Nagel (2012, p. 7) himself pre-empts that his argument will ‘strike many people as outrageous.’

  10. 10.

    See Kant (2000b). I explore Kant’s account of adaptive fit in Cooper (2017).

  11. 11.

    Citations to Metaphysical Foundations and to Critique of the Power of Judgment are to Volumes 4 and 5 of Kants gesammelte Schriften, Akadamie Ausgabe, following the Cambridge University Press translations.

  12. 12.

    Dupré would no doubt resist being associated with an idealist position. Dupré (1993, p. 1) oscillates between a naturalist method that affirms the unavailability of a theory-independent view for metaphysics (‘I place myself firmly in the philosophical tradition that sees empirical, often scientific, inquiry as providing the most credible source of knowledge of how things are’), and a robust metaphysical position that assumes the very position rejected (‘The most general doctrine I shall advocate is pluralism ... a doctrine I refer to as “promiscuous realism” ... Thus my thesis will be that the disunity of science ... reflects accurately the underlying ontological complexity of the world, the disorder of things’ [Dupré 1993, pp. 6–7]). My suggestion is simply that idealism would help Dupré develop these two positions into a consistent theory.

  13. 13.

    For similar treatments of Kant, see also Roqué (1985), McLaughlin (1990), Weber and Verela (2002).

  14. 14.

    In Metaphysical Foundations, Kant argues that because the fields of ‘experimental physics’ examine chemical and organic items through examples, they cannot contain necessity and are thus ‘figurative’ or ‘improper’ sciences (uneigentliche Wissenschaften) (4:470). This is to say that they do not deal with their object ‘wholly according to a priori principles’ (4:468). In Critique of the Power of Judgment Kant returns to the experimental sciences, granting them a scientific status to the extent that they do bear necessity, for they operate according to principles acquired through reflection. See Cooper (2017).

  15. 15.

    If anything Kant suggests that our mechanical grounds should be ‘subordinated’ to teleological principles, and yet this only serves our reflection on nature as a system and does not to constitute knowledge (5:414). See Ginsborg (2006).

  16. 16.

    This is evident in the opening pages of Critique of Pure Reason, as Kant (1999 p. Bxii) sets up his project in terms of Baconian experimental philosophy, and in particular, in terms of Copernicus’ discovery of the heliocentric model of the heavens. Yet Kant’s account of organised systems in Critique of the Power of Judgment intensifies the feedback between experience and second-order reflection. As Paul Guyer (2001, p. 262) notes, ‘the basic reason for discussing organisms at all was precisely that these are objects within our experience that can prompt us to take this twofold view of nature’ wherein efficient causation and organised spontaneity coexist.


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I would like to thank Markus Gabriel, Andy Jones, Tim Smartt, Paul Redding, and Yarran Hominh for their insightful discussion and invaluable feedback on early drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank my anonymous reviewers for their detailed and stimulating comments, which helped improve this paper immensely.

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Cooper, A. Two directions for teleology: naturalism and idealism. Synthese 195, 3097–3119 (2018).

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  • Naturalism
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Function
  • Idealism
  • Kant