Sunday, April 17, 2005

On Science and Teleology, part I

Let us begin without preamble: science has its critics. One of the most common criticisms of science is that science can only answer "how" questions as opposed to "why" questions. There are a number of problems with this criticism that I will address in this essay.

On the face of it, this would appear to be an absurd claim. If you want to know why a bridge collapsed, science can give you the tools to determine that (say) one of the critical supporting struts suffered failure due to metal fatigue. If you want to know why the sky is blue, science provides the methodology to understand that this is a result of the particular way that light is scattered by our atmosphere. Science can also tell you not only why the sky is blue in the daytime but why it's red at dusk and dawn.

I am sorry to say that this is a naïve rebuttal of the criticism. On the other hand, such a rebuttal is, itself, a response to a slip-shod formulation of the criticism. "How" and "why" are simple and intuitive terms but they lack precision. To understand the criticism and, therefore, to rebut it we must first eschew imprecise language in favor of technical precision.

When people say that science can't address why questions, the actual claim is that science isn't teleological but rather etiological.

Teleology is the branch of philosophy that pertains to the issue of purpose. To explain something in teleological terms means to account for something in terms of its purpose and meaning. To provide a simple example, the teleological nature of a chef's knife is that it is a tool designed to cut or chop food. Note that even though such a knife can be used for other functions, such as a lever or a crude can opener, those functions are not part of its intended purpose.

By contrast, etiology is the study of causation. It describes entities and events in terms of the sequence of events that led to their instantiation. Whereas the teleology of a knife is bound to its intended purpose, the etiology of the knife is found in its construction. In like manner, although explaining the color of the sky in terms of light diffraction answers the question of why the sky is blue, the explanation is etiological in that the explanation is bound in a causal framework. It is not teleological because it doesn't offer a purpose for the color of the sky.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that teleology is a word whose meaning can be a bit tricky. The knife example provided a fairly generic example of a teleological case; however, many philosophers would consider big-T Teleology to be the study of ultimate purpose. Some philosophers would go so far as to define Teleology has a branch of Theology with the goal of Teleology being to explain the universe in terms of God.

That's well and good. Science, however, is defined as the study of the natural world. Science doesn't have anything to do with such metaphysical entities as gods (unless those gods have some posited interaction with the natural world that science can investigate). On this level, saying that science isn't teleological is a tautology, meaning that it's a truth only because the terms of the claim are such that it's defined to be true. In other words, it's a bit like saying that gentiles aren't Jewish: true by definition and, therefore, trivial.

Moving only slightly beyond Theological Teleology, we have flavors of teleology that try to describe the universe and its entities in terms of ultimate meanings while stopping short of explicitly positing gods (usually by leaving the question open). Almost everyone has asked themselves, at some point or another, what the meaning of life is. That's a perfectly teleological question but it also comes with its own hidden implication: that there is such a teleological meaning to be found. One of the big, open questions in teleology is whether there is, in fact, anything to be found at that teleological level. It is plausible to suppose that the universe is only the result of etiological causations and that it did not come into existence with an over-arching purpose. In like manner, the only meaning bound to our lives may be those meanings that we, ourselves, generate from within. In other words, saying that science isn't teleological may be as relevant as saying that elephants aren't angels.

Leaving aside theology and metaphysics, is the claim that science can't address any teleological questions true? Is science, in fact, only good at doing etiological work?

In a word: no.

It is true that scientists tend to prefer addressing questions that fit into either an etiological framework (how does this happen) or an ontological framework (what is this that is happening). The simple reason for this is that those kinds of questions are easier to address.

Let us consider lightning. We start with observation. There are big flashes of light that appear to travel from the sky to the ground. One of the very first questions a scientist studying lightning would ask would be what is it (i.e., what is its ontology). That's what Benjamin Franklin was doing when he sought to demonstrate that lightning was a form of electricity. Having worked out its ontology, a scientist would then want to understand how lightning works (i.e., what is its etiology). This is a more complicated question but one that can usually be broken down into smaller components. Since we've already established that lightning is electrical in nature, we can start by investigating how electricity works in the laboratory and in other controlled settings. We can also create models of how lightning should work in the real world and compare those models compare to real-world observations. Ultimately, we can come up with a well-developed theory of lightning that does a thorough job of explaining the etiological aspects of the phenomenon.

Now suppose that we were a scientist who was interested in the teleology of lightning. Even supposing that we assumed that it had a teleology, for the sake of argument, how could we possibly do anything to approach that teleology in a reliable manner? To be sure, we could conjecture. We could speculate, for instance, that God created lightning (or, more precisely, the conditions that allow for the existence of lightning) in order to turn the soil. In this case, we could use science to investigate whether or not lightning does, in fact, turn the soil. Suppose that we found that lightning does turn the soil, however. All we've done is demonstrate that the conjecture isn't contradicted by observation, but we haven't actually supported the proposition that God's will is involved. Let us consider an alternative speculation: lightning exists because Thor needs it as a weapon against the enemies of Asgard. Here we have a claim that we can't even begin to approach using the methodologies of science.

Does this not suggest, then, that science is, in fact, unable to approach even the most basic of teleological questions? Not quite.

But how can this be? If the tools of science are only appropriate for discovering ontological and etiological facts, how can science approach even the most rudimentary of teleological questions?

I have the perfect example, which I'll share with you in the next and final installment of this essay, two weeks hence.

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