And the alternative to emergence?

The alternative to emergence as an explanation for life, if you exclude more than astronomically-remote mere chance, is teleology. I always remember my introduction to the word “teleology”, which was in an evolutionary context. Well it wasn’t, really, but it was in the mouth of the only one of my medical teachers who took evolution at all seriously.
Pat Crome taught me haematology, which together with immunology was one of the few parts of the medical syllabus with significant conceptual difficulties. The bewilderingly complicated function of the immune system’s white cells needed to be explained. As did the incredibly complex blood clotting cascade. Characteristically, Dr Crome would carefully explain the purpose of each part, and then hastily backtrack with the words, “Of course, one shouldn’t speak teleologically.” I can’t remember if I had to look the word up, or whether she explained that, of course, all these wonderful systems had evolved, and now operated, without any actual purpose. Natural selection had simply allowed their survival, and here we are learning about them.

For all that, it didn’t stop her proceeding immediately  to employ more teleological language throughout the course, as did every other teacher I ever had (only without the evolutionary hand-wringing). And the reason for this is that it is, in fact, absolutely impossible to discuss living creatures, or their evolution, without thoroughly immersing oneself in the language of intention, purpose and design. I would even put out a challenge to anyone to find a single paper in the history of the life sciences without at least one teleological statement.

“Function” is a teleologically loaded word. So what evolutionary wording should one use to talk about the function of a gene or protein? “Selection” is a choice-word, so it must always be replaced with “survival of the fittest” – though I’m not sure about the propriety of “fit”. “Advantageous”, “neutral” and “deleterious” all suggest some goal against which one is measuring – and evolution has no goals. And so it goes on.

As I reflect on Pat Crome’s words, I realise that ateleological thinking even subverts the whole aim of medicine. Broadly, doctors consider their role to be the restoration of normal function to the body. But “normal” is a teleological value-word. And “function”, as I’ve said, is a teleological description of meaningful activity. So what proper, scientific doctors should be attempting to do (I won’t go into materialist claims on the meaninglessness of saying that humans can “attempt” as if their genuinely had free-will) – what they should be attempting is to impose a function on the body when it happens to have acquired adaptations less compatible with long life or contented feelings than that most frequently observed. So much more accurate than that teleologically contaminated “healing the sick” malarky.

Once again we are talking about evolution’s propensity to render things illusory. Teleology is an illusion, and all the words that go with it. Our teleological language is merely an analogy – but so powerful an analogy that it’s actually impossible to describe what we’re talking about in more correct terms.

Now things like quantum physics and relativity are so far outside daily experience that, aside from mathematical descriptions, we are doomed to using analogies. Curved space, flat Universes, collapsing wave functions … these terms may not cast a very clear light to lay people, but it’s the best we have. But life, ostensibly, is quite a comprehensible process. It’s large-scale polymer chemistry at the detailed level, and natural livestock breeding at the gross level. It ought to be easy enough to describe in its own scientific terms. But if in fact, it is impossible to avoid using teleological language as soon as you open your mouth – and it is – then you have to suspect strongly that the reason is that the reality itself is teleological.

Sorry, Pat.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to And the alternative to emergence?

  1. Gregory says:

    Thank you for naming ‘malarky’ in science as you see it, Jon!

    You wrote: “Once again we are talking about evolution’s propensity to render things illusory.”

    Yes, there are many things rendered illusory by limiting oneself to the evolutionary paradigm. For example, seeing processes everywhere instead of sometimes admitting the existence of (discontinuous, creative, new) origins. But the ‘teleological’ language can also be pushed too far, even outside of natural sciences.

    Also: “it is, in fact, absolutely impossible to discuss living creatures, or their evolution, without thoroughly immersing oneself in the language of intention, purpose and design.”

    It turns out that intention, purpose and design are discussed regularly when describing the choices of living creatures, aka, those we reflexively know as human beings. But that is a type of ‘non-evolutionary’ change.

    Might it be that some people try to get from non-life to life without a goal or purpose, just as others try to get from no-information to information without a mind automatically (mechanically/divinely) implied?

    Here the issue may be how comfortable people feel showing their (extra-scientific) presuppositions, especially when they are biologists, given that ideology has a significant influence (e.g. teleology vs. non-teleology) in that academic field too.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    I’m told that teleological language is now acceptable in human sciences – it wasn’t always so! I suppose in biology the main point is that, whether or not people believe in teleology (and in most cases they don’t admit to it) they are doomed to using the language of purpose, which is rather telling.

    It leads to oddities. Except when they’re doing evolution-speak, few wildlife observers would deny that the zebra wants to escape the lion, or that the stag’s purpose is to beat his rival. But everything that leads to up that purposeful behaviour has to be understood without reference to purpose, purely in terms of fortuitous differential survival. At what point does the teleology appear in the process?

    Another anomaly is theistic evolution, where it is necessary to read the ubiquitous teleological language in the literature, translate it into atelological language to do good science, and then translate *that* into some other teleological form to do the “theistic” bit. It’s no wonder so many get exhausted and omit the last stage to leave an ateological God!

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