Teleology Rises from the Grave

Stephen T. Asma in Berfrois:

AmbystomasIn his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant famously predicted that there would never be a “Newton for a blade of grass.” Biology, he thought, would never be unified and reduced down to a handful of mechanical laws, as in the case of physics. This, he argued, is because we cannot expunge teleology (goal-directedness) from living systems. The question “what is it for?” applies to living structures in a way that has no corollary in physics.

Most Anglo and American philosophers, historians of science, and theologians have misunderstood this teleological argument, and the confusion has resurrected (with a vengeance) in the newest kerfuffle surrounding Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, 2012). Nagel and his critics are rehearsing a tired debate that we may be doomed to repeat ad nauseum unless we gain some fresh perspective.

The usual narrative goes like this: Kant said there would be no Newton of biology; along comes Darwin, the Newton of biology, who shows that natural selection explains adaptation without appeal to teleology; fast-forward to the present and we are now the inheritors of a mechanical biology and only religious cranks still bleat on about teleology. Such is the standard narrative – clear, simple and wrong.

More here.