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Teleology

Posted: Thu Mar 29, 2007 8:31 pm UTC
by gmalivuk
The animal experimentation thread seems to have become more of a teleology debate. Perhaps that would be more fruitful in its own thread, so here's one. Starting it out with my responses to a few quotes in the other one.

Vaniver wrote:And 'meaning' is fairly unambiguous.


I tend to think "meaning" is actually far more ambiguous than "purpose", in that it is used in many different ways in different contexts. The most common way "meaning" is used is for what something represents or signifies. But is this really what people talk about when they say "the meaning of life"? Simply what it is that life denotes?

Belial wrote:There's no "purpose" to any of it, objectively speaking.


"Purpose", though, *can* be given a natural, functionalist description. Whether this can in turn be used to deduce moral obligations depends, of course, on your moral viewpoint. But it seems to me to be generally consistent with the way the word is usually used to say something like

The function or purpose of a thing is to carry out the set of activities by virtue of which its "ancestors" were able to successfully "reproduce" (in whatever sence is relevant to the context at hand) and eventually bring the thing itself into being.

So the purpose of a throat is to swallow, because it is by virtue of their swallowing successfully that previous throats promoted the survival and eventual reproduction of their bodies, eventually leading to the throats we have today. This is obviously somewhat simplistic, and would have to be augmented by saying, in some kind of precise language that I don't feel like hashing out at this point, that the purpose of a made thing is that attributed to it by its creator. (Thereby allowing this definition of purpose to fit with a theological worldview as well as an atheistic one.)

This account can, I think, be used to attatch some kind of purpose to human life. The thing is, human lives are not merely biological things. As has been said in the other thread, our minds carry ideas and thought patterns that have very little directly to do with our genes. I am not just my genes or body parts, and so my purpose is not merely the sum total of the purposes of those parts. *I* am (or at least usually think of myself as being) more the collection of ideas in my head than the collection of parts in my body. Therefore, my purpose must in part be based on the characteristics of the antecedents of my ideas and personality traits which allowed those things to be reproduced inside my head.

As such, on this account my purpose in life is not merely to reproduce. (Anyone who thinks that is the purpose of life is really wasting their time sitting on the Internet, when they could be out increasing the population problem.)

And again, I think the connection between this kind of purpose and morality is an entirely different issue. If you ascribe to some kind of neo-Aristotelian teleological view of ethics (where a person's moral goal is to fulfill their purpose as best they can), then sure, this account of purpose can be extended to provide some normative constraints on how we ought to live our lives. But if you are not a teleologist, and I think most of the people taking the opposite view in the experimentation thread are not, you have no reason to make a connection between the functional purpose of a thing and the moral obligations (if any) that thing has.

(So really, this could be two separate threads. One about various accounts of purpose and a separate discussion about the relevance of that to an ethical system.)

Posted: Thu Mar 29, 2007 9:11 pm UTC
by space_raptor
Wow, good job, it's not every day that I see a word I don't know the meaning of.

What the heck does teleology mean?

Posted: Fri Mar 30, 2007 2:38 am UTC
by gmalivuk
Wikipedia wrote:Teleology (telos: end, purpose) is the philosophical study of design, purpose, directive principle, or finality in nature or human creations.


So basically it's the study (ology) of function and purpose (telos).

Posted: Fri Mar 30, 2007 2:46 am UTC
by Vaniver
Teleology is the tool of the devil.

Posted: Fri Mar 30, 2007 3:13 am UTC
by space_raptor
Vaniver wrote:Teleology is the tool of the devil.


I'm not sure, but I think that was funny!

Posted: Fri Mar 30, 2007 3:15 am UTC
by Vaniver
I'm not sure, but I think that was funny!
Are you not sure because you forgot whether or not it made you laugh, or because you're not sure whether or not I'm serious?