An externalist teleology

Synthese 199 (3-4):8755-8780 (2021)
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Teleology has a complicated history in the biological sciences. Some have argued that Darwin’s theory has allowed biology to purge itself of teleological explanations. Others have been content to retain teleology and to treat it as metaphorical, or have sought to replace it with less problematic notions like teleonomy. And still others have tried to naturalize it in a way that distances it from the vitalism of the nineteenth century, focusing on the role that function plays in teleological explanation. No consensus has seemed possible in this debate. This paper takes a different approach. It argues that teleology is a perfectly acceptable scientific notion, but that the debate took an unfortunate misstep some 2300 years ago, one that has confused things ever since. The misstep comes in the beginning of Aristotle’s Physics when a distinction is made between two types of teleological explanation. One type pertains to artifacts while the other pertains to entities in nature. For Aristotle, artifacts are guided by something external to themselves, human intentions, while natural entities are guided by an internal nature. We aim to show that there is, in fact, only one type of legitimate teleological explanation, what Aristotle would have considered a variant of an artifact model, where entities are guided by external fields. We begin with an analysis of the differences between the two types of explanation. We then examine some evidence in Aristotle’s biological works suggesting that on account of his natural-artifactual distinction, he encountered difficulties in trying to provide teleological accounts of spontaneous generation. And we show that it is possible to resolve these difficulties with a more robust version of an artifact model of teleology, in other words, with an externalist teleology. This is McShea’s model, in which goal-directed entities are guided by a nested series of upper-level fields. To explain teleological behavior, this account invokes only external physical forces rather than mysterious internal natures. We then consider how field theory differs from other efforts to naturalize teleology in biology. And finally, we show how the account enables us to grapple with certain difficult cases – genes and intentions – where, even in biology today, the temptation to posit internal natures remains strong.

Author Profiles

Dan McShea
Duke University
Gunnar Babcock
Duke University


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