Aristotle's teleology

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sat Feb 17 2001 - 19:04:08 MST

At 01:44 AM 18/02/01 +0100, serafino wrote:

>Aristotle already pointed out very
>interesting things about these issues.
>- scerir

>- Aristotle, Phys. II, 8:

>Further, where a series has a completion (telos),
>all the preceding steps are for the sake of that.
>Now surely as in intelligent action, so in nature;
>and as in nature, so it is in each action,
>if nothing interferes.

This was a shockingly erroneous analysis, even for someone writing so long
ago. I suppose it might seem plausible if you assume that people arrived at
the same time as the rest of nature and not at the end of a very long
adaptive process that generated ab initio novelties such as planning and
intention. But even then, it's dopy in the extreme. A human opens her mouth
and sends gases moving across the vibrating folds inside her throat; we
call this speech, and know that it was indeed intended for communication. A
burst of air movement across a stand of trees causes the leaves to shake
audibly; we know that this is a complete happenstance, unintended; any
analogy with speech is a foolish superstitious error. A star reaches a
certain age and collapses into a supernova that scatters elements necessary
to the emergence of life in some distant as-yet-unborn solar system; we
know that this is a complete happenstance, unintended, however necessary in
hindsight for the development of minds able to see the difference between
intentionless physical sequences and the telic actions of complex beings.

Aristotle had his analogical arrow of explanation pointed in the wrong
direction. How can you find his mistake `very interesting'?

Damien Broderick

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