Monday, August 27, 2012

Notes on teleology

Off-the-cuff here, but need to get the thoughts down on (digital) paper.

It's hard to imagine how one would become The Ultimate Philosopher without having devoted serious amounts of time and thought over the years to the subject of teleology.  The most famous exponent of a teleological interpretation of (at least some) natural phenomena is Aristotle.  The so-called conventional wisdom is that Aristotle's teleology was abandoned by philosophers after the middle ages and the rise of the scientific age.  It turns out that the subject of teleological concepts in biology is of interest to some philosophical sub-specialists today.

Now, to get to what just now had me to thinking (yet again) on the subject of teleology.

The use of the term "teleology" in Objectivist/Randian circles is not altogether clear(ly consistent).  I'll first take the original statement on the matter from the Lexicon, which appeared in a footnote:

When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term “goal-directed” is not to be taken to mean “purposive” (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term “goal-directed,” in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism’s life.
First off, I'd like to indicate what Rand got right: "Goal-directed" should not be taken to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature.  Then the confusion begins: "goal" here is to be understood in terms of the automatic functions of living organisms such that they achieve a "result."  Rand doesn't provide any further explanation of this point, but it's a big one, because it is central to understanding her meta-ethics.  It all has to do with living organisms facing a fundamental life/death alternative and that this alternative makes sense out of speaking of goals; where there are no alternatives, there are no goals.  This last part sounds correct.  However, we also have an apparent conflation of the meanings of "goal" and of "value," a value being that which one acts to gain and/or keep.  Accepting this definition of "value" for the moment (I am not clear on what would compel us to do so, and never really have been), we get concretizations from Rand about, chiefly, the activities of plants and of animals.  In her terms, valuation in plants would involve (for instance) movements to maximize exposure to sunlight, the sunlight being valuable to their photosynthesis activities; or, for another example, valuation would involve the activities of cellular metabolism.  With animals you have obvious examples such as feeding (and the other three F's, the last of which throws a wrench into everything, as I'll address in a moment).  Where the primary "goal" (or value) of the plant, is directed toward gathering energy and nutrients, the alternative is malfunction, disease, death.

So, how do we respond to all this?  Well, in addition to the two statements above which I've indicated make good sense, it also makes sense to say that the activities of (say) a plant are such that they are organizationally and functionally ordered toward the production of a result.  What I don't see that implying is that they are goal-directed.  This gets us to an accounting of "goals," which in my view are related to the term "value" (which has to do with valuing something, which doesn't mean "value" is defined as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep;" rather, value is used here in the sense of actual or potential utility in satisfying a desire, or something close to this idea).  Much as I have tried (and gone back and forth) over the years on understanding "goal" as applied to insentient nature, I think the term "goal" is applicable only to sentient activity.  Likewise, I think "value" has meaning only in application to sentient activity.  What's more, I think the fundamental meta-ethical term "goodness" is applicable only to sentient activity - which is to say, that I do not accept Rand's conception of goodness as applied to living organisms generally.  (N.B.: I do not think that this is fatal to the central thrust of Rand's argument in "The Objectivist Ethics."  I think much the same ethical conclusions could be derived from restricting the concept of "goodness" to the well-being of sentient entities [which for all we know must be biological entities, though that's a philosophy-of-mind issue].)

Here's where we are so far:

"Goal" is applicable only to sentient activity.  (I'll explain this shortly.)

"Value" is applicable only to sentient activity.  (Ditto)

"Result" is applicable to living entities in terms of how their biological organization functionally "directs" their activities.

Something's being a result in the above sense does not make it a goal.

Rand uses "goal-directed" so as not to imply a teleological principle operating in an insentient nature (or "tpoiain," for short).  What is not determined from this statement is how she does apply the concept of teleology.  Apparently "goal-directed"-not-implying-a-tpoiain would indicate that she doesn't think there is any such thing as a tpoiain, but that's not made explicit.

Since this is off-the-cuff, I'll mention Harry Binswanger's work on teleology at this point.  His Columbia doctoral thesis, later turned into a book published by ARI, is titled "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts."  On the face of it, such a title does imply the endorsement of the idea of a tpoiain, as it applies not only to humans and other animals, but to plants, to fungi, to amoeba, to bacteria, any biological organism you can name.  At the same time, we would be reasonable to assume that Rand, with whom Binswanger was closely associated, was familiar with this thesis and its contents and agreed that it is consistent with her meta-ethics.  (Peikoff references Binswanger's thesis/book in OPAR, as well.)  And so we're back to the confusions.  We're back to asking whether a bacterium plausibly "pursues goals," "has values," or "faces a life/death alternative," and whether the concept "good" or "bad/evil" apply to the outcomes/results of its activities.  So, to continue . . .

"Goal" is only applicable to a sentient being.  (I may be stipulating word-usage here, but it's hard to see how Rand/Objectivists aren't doing the same.)  Here's how I think that's plausible: It does not make sense to speak of having a goal unless there is an awareness of an alternative.  Now, "awareness of an alternative" might be thought to involve considerable foresight, planning, and so forth.  Here, I'll mention something that Rand herself brings up: the pleasure/pain mechanism.  Even in that very basic form - as it obtains even at the level of mentally primitive animals - there is some basic awareness of the alternative involved here.  The goal, then, for such non-cognitively-advanced beings is to pursue that which provides an automatic guide to . . . well, to what?  For Rand, the automatic pleasure-pain mechanism directs an animal to that which "sustains, furthers, and promotes its life."  For contemporary biology, however, the automatic guide directs animals toward something called "inclusive fitness" - and hence why the last of the four F's is so highly related to pleasure.  Rand is at odds with contemporary biology; I don't know any other way to put it.  This means that Rand is almost surely mistaken as to what the basic functions (or "natural ends") of living organisms are.  She cannot derive her (plausible) ethical conclusions from her (implausible) biological claims.  (Her "man's life qua man" modification on "life as the standard of value" - rather than, well, psychological well-being as the standard of value - can be converted quite simply to: "the activities based on principles required for the proper functioning of a rational being," which translates both conceptually and causally to: eudaimonia.)

So, what's the point, then, of bringing up the pleasure/pain mechanism?  It's to make a less ambitious but more plausible claim than Rand does: that the pleasure/pain mechanism provides automatic guidance to animals as to what promotes their good, i.e., their psychological well-being.  I think it's necessary to add in here: "Other things being equal."  However, it's basically only cognitively-advanced beings such as humans that are able to grasp the "other things being equal" part and to take that into deliberative account.

So "goal," at the very minimum, involves an awareness-in-mind of an alternative.  It also makes sense to say that an animal pursues goals in the sense that the animal has desires, drives, etc. that can be satisfied or frustrated.

I think "value" basically operates in the same fashion.  The concept  "value" is based on the phenomenon of having desires, drives, etc. that can be satisfied or frustrated.  This needn't involve conflating the meanings of "goal" and of "value," even though they are obviously very closely related.

So, now we have:

"Result" is present where there are functional life-processes.

Biological "function" is defined in terms of inclusive fitness.

"Goal" and "value" are defined in terms of what is pursued by a sentient being.  (Binswanger's term "value-significance" applies at this level.)

"Teleology" pertains to goal-directedness, which operates only in sentient parts of nature.

The specifically human form of goal-directedness is defined in terms of purpose or end, or something indicating the rational and deliberative element in human goal-pursuit or valuation.

"Standard of value" pertains to successful goal-directed action, success being defined in terms of what is good for the valuer.

"Good" is that which promotes psychological well-being.

"Well-being" may very well apply to the health and successful life activities of non-sentient organisms, but that doesn't imply "goodness," "value," "goal."

Psychological well-being in humans translates (at least closely) to eudaimonia.  Or more precisely: psychological well-being exists on a (teleologically?) measurable continuum, represented by some variant or other of the Maslow hierarchy of needs (beginning with the vegetative, then animal, then human-specific needs with their own ordering), with maximal well-being or self-actualization being concurrent with eudaimonia.

Or something along these lines.  (If I've left some strands hanging in the above, I'll leave that as an exercise for myself and the reader.)

Whew.  Glad to get all that cleared up.  What next? :-)

UPDATE: A dialecticizing of all the items here just came under consideration.  It'd be time-consuming as fuck, but the payoff might well be worth it.  Or maybe not.  Better things to do?