The Modern Philosophical Resurrection of Teleology

The Monist 87 (1):3-51 (2004)
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Many objects in the world have functions. Typewriters are for typing. Can-openers are for opening cans. Lawnmowers are for cutting grass. That is what these things are for. Every day around the world people attribute functions to objects. Some of the objects with functions are organs or parts of living organisms. Hearts are for pumping blood. Eyes are for seeing. Countless works in biology explain the “Form, Function, and Evolution of... ” everything from bee dances to elephant tusks to pandas’ ‘thumbs’. Many scientific explanations, in areas as diverse as psychology, sociology, economics, medical research, and neuroscience, rest on appeals to the function and/or malfunction of things or systems. They talk of how humans and other organisms or their parts work, what their functions are, why they are present, and how different situations will affect them and how they will react. Philosophers, going back to Aristotle, used to make generous use of functions in describing objects, organisms, their interactions, and even as the basis of ethics and metaphysics. And yet, since the Enlightenment, talk of the function of natural objects, teleological function, began to be viewed with suspicion, as the mechanical model of the world replaced the old Aristotelian model. From a religious standpoint, it used to be easy to see how objects in the natural world could have natural functions, for God was said to instill functions by design throughout Creation. But philosophers became increasingly reluctant to invoke God to solve every difficult philosophical problem, and became unwilling to indulge in such religious explanations of teleology.



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