On Purpose

Teleology posits that natural phenomena exist for a purpose; that is, nature has goals. Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (423–347 BCE) was a dyed-in-the-wool teleologist. But since the time of British natural philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), empiricism supposedly trumped teleology in scientific circles. Scientific canon is that existential facts do not support purpose as intrinsic to the natural world. To that scientists agree, at least in concept. What they intuitively believe is something else.

For biological traits, evolution has often been viewed as goal seeking. In the rear-view mirror, adaptation appears to be purposeful. Yet German evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1904–2005), considered one of the leaders in his field, contemplated that “adaptedness is a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal-seeking.” The crowd that bite off on that favor random mutation as the propellant of natural selection. Ironically, that Darwinian belief is a facile misunderstanding of evolution’s dynamics, though the mental misstep has less to do with purpose than the randomness of mutation and inter-species competition.

If, as Darwin proposed, natural selection was a competitive exercise, then more primitive life would have succumbed to higher forms. The world is full of evidence to the contrary. Evolution does not produce superiority, only diversity.

Fundamental failures of conceptualization drive scientific discourse to this day. Especially considering the essentials of life – genetics and adaptation – reality is much more nuanced than the simplistic mental models that have predominated in these disciplines. Only within the past few years has genetics been jolted by the realization that regulation of gene expression is the joker in practically every hand played from the genome.

Outside the organic realm, the concept of final causes existing in nature is nothing but a spiritual belief, particularly for inorganic disciplines such as cosmology, physics and chemistry. Do scientists believe that the universe and its elements have a purpose?

Despite scientific canon to the contrary, the natural tendency of scientists remains towards teleology. Purpose-orientation prevails, particularly when jumping to conclusions. When given time for contemplation, endorsement of purpose-based explanations are less accepted.

The human mind is naturally geared to spirituality over science, to believing that there are reasons for all that exists. Logic is a backstop for filtering out the outrageous, but its net is too small to catch higher purpose, to which the human mind instinctively holds, scientifically inclined or not.


Deborah Kelemen et al, “Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default,” APA PsychNET (15 October 2012).