Teleology and the Life Sciences: Between Limit Concept and Ontological Necessity

In Spyridon A. Koutroufinis (ed.), Life and Process: Towards a New Biophilosophy. De Gruyter. pp. 37-72 (2014)

Barbara Muraca
Oregon State University
Against the background of the current discussion about self-organization theories and complexity theories and their application within biology and ecology, the question of teleology gains a new significance. Some scholars insist on the total elimination of any reference to teleology from the realm of the natural sciences. However, it seems especially hard to eradicate teleological expressions from scientific language when the issue of understanding living beings is at stake. For this reason, other scholars opt for a middle path that allows for some teleological language. Yet, it is an open question whether teleological expressions are to be considered as playing a merely metaphorical or a necessary heuristic role in the sciences. Moreover, the ontological presuppositions, which underpin different positions in the debate, need to be depicted and analyzed. This paper aims at addressing the question of teleology within the life sciences by taking into account both Kant’s critical philosophy and Whitehead’s ontology. My analysis starts with Georg Toepfer’s distinction among different concepts of teleology and then focuses on the role of “internal purposiveness” (innere Zweckmäßigkeit) for biology today. I show how purposiveness (Zweckmäßigkeit; hereafter: ZM) corresponds to a very complex form of reciprocal causation (Wechselwirkung) rather than to any model of final causation. Drawing on Kant’s analysis of “natural purposes” in the Critique of Judgment as well as selforganization theory, I claim that reciprocal causation – however complex it might well be – is not sufficient to describe living beings adequately. However, since the natural sciences are still caught up in the presuppositions of modern scientistic and materialistic ontology, a step beyond mere efficient causation seems to be impossible within their methodological framework. And yet, as I will show, a genuine teleology of nature implies the idea of anticipation of totality. This kind of teleological consideration is presented at first in its role as a regulative concept in Kantian terms. Finally, I follow the path of Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism’ and claim for natural teleology the state of a necessary ontological presupposition. Whitehead’s ontology offers an ontological underpinning for teleological issues that, by avoiding any recourse to supernatural forces, invites life and natural sciences to a fruitful dialogue at the limit of their methodological boundaries, pressing them beyond their unreflected presuppositions.
Keywords teleology  process philosophy  Whitehead
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DOI 10.1515/9783110352597.37
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