Sunday, July 03, 2005

Science and Teleology: Conclusions

This is the conclusion of the Science and Teleology essay. In the previous installments I introduced the concepts of teleology (pertaining to purpose) and etiology (which pertains to cause). I explained that some critics of science have claimed that science can only offer etiological explanations and that it must necessarily be silent when it comes to teleological explanations &mdash a critique often (sloppily) phased as science being able to deal with how questions but not why questions.

Over the course of the essay I gave a fuller account of what teleology is and what sort of explanations are teleological. I then gave myself the challenge of offering a scientific account of a phenomenon using etiological reasoning to achieve it. The phenomenon that I chose was that of play. I further restricted myself by stating that I would do so without using an evolutionary account.

Using a variety of biological and, in particular, developmental and genetic arguments I was able to eventually produce a functional teleological account: some animals play because their brains have become too complex for their genes to impart the necessary instincts to allow them to be born with the prerequisites for survival. Play allows a channel by which they can learn the necessary skills to survive. I also noted that, once play does arise in a lineage, additional cognitive opportunities open up.

So, what conclusions can we draw?

The first and most obvious is that it is possible to do so. A few qualifications are in order. It is not obviously possible to provide teleological explanation for any given phenomena and, in all probability, the majority of natural phenomena will not be amenable to teleological accounts.

While we were able to provide a teleological account of play, it took considerable effort. We had to painstakingly work our way down from taxonomy through developmental economics and then to genetics and back up through development. Moreover, the account that I provided was simplified. Science is a painstaking task.

That noted, what we accomplished is rather marvelous. Using etiology to achieve a teleology is very much akin to transforming lead into gold. It's almost a philosophical miracle that it is possible to do anything like that.

This not only says something valuable about science, but also about the philosophy of teleology. One of the big problems with teleology is that most of the things which can be assigned definite teleologies are trivial. The questions that teleologists are really interested in &mdash the meaning of life sorts of questions &mdash are only amenable to speculation. Teleology, as a whole, lacks a methodology with which it can decide whether a certain answer is a good or bad answer (or whether or not there is, in fact, any answer), which is why teleology is often left to the theologians. Debating religious points can, at least, allow for one to arrive at an answer that conforms to dogma. Of course, this is only true if you agree with the dogma and its interpretations.

Paradoxically, another advantage of deriving a scientific teleology is a lack of certainty. This may seem like a disadvantage, but science isn't about finding ultimate truths; science is a process of refining our knowledge so that it approaches an ideal of truth. This may seem like a weak epistemology but it's actually strength is deceptively powerful. In a dogmatic discipline, false convictions can be help as absolute truths without any means of moving away from them. In science, all knowledge is considered contingent and subject to improvement. As such, a poor scientific answer to a question can be either discarded or refined. As time passes, this leads to an increasing sense of confidence in our conclusions as our refinements become progressively more "pure".

Having said this, I should point out that the conclusion that I've presented for the teleology of play is contingent. Indeed, there are a number of potential problems. One of the biggest is the issues of junk DNA. As I noted, there is a limited amount of genetic material and only so much of it can be used to program instincts into an organisms; however, geneticists have found that long stretches of DNA don't actually code for any proteins. The actual purpose (if any) is unknown. It is possible that junk DNA doesn't have any function &mdash it's just an accumulation of errors over time. Others suggest that it is functional, albeit in a subtle one. Some have, for instance, suggested that it acts as a kind of buffer between active segments.

If junk DNA is really functionless, we may well ask why it couldn't be utilized for building more instincts. On the other hand, that question applies to the other elements of an animal's phenotype, too. If the "junk" segments could be used for instincts, they could also be used to refine an animals class, armor, digestive tract, etc. As such, junk DNA is a general problem and not a specific problem.

It is plausible that the teleological hypothesis for play is flawed in other ways. Fortunately, like any good hypothesis, it makes testable predictions. We would predict, for example, that play only arises in those creatures that have certain well-specified developmental luxuries. Cowboy songs to the contrary, we would not expect to see genuine play in the deer and the antelope, for instance.1 If we were to find examples of play that weren't accounted for by the hypothesis, we would need to reexamine the data. Perhaps we would conclude that there are multiple paths to play, or we might conclude that the hypothesis is defective and needs to be fixed or discarded (depending on the nature of the defect).

Because teleology is often associated with theology and metaphysics, many scientists find themselves uncomfortable speaking in teleological terms. Some prefer to refer to scientific teleology as teleonomy, much in the way that we distinguish astrology from astronomy. I believe that this is misguided. Astrology and astronomy are fundamentally different. The only superficial resemblance is that they both involve observations of the planets and stars, but their goals are radically distinct. Teleology and "teleonomy" have the same purpose: the assignment of purpose. There is a radical difference in methodology, however. A metaphysicist is not (and should not) interested in using scientific methodology to illuminate metaphysical concerns. We should be very hesitant, for instance, to try to using scientific means to ascribe a teleology to the abstract principle of "justice".

If we need a distinction of terminology, I would suggest using terms like "metaphysical teleology", "scientific teleology", and "theological teleology" with the understanding that each employs distinct methodologies to arrive and their conclusions.

As I have shown, the critics are wrong. Science can address the question of purpose for at least some problems. I doubt that this will really satisfy many of those critics, however, since the sorts of questions that they tend to be interested in are not scientific questions. More often then not, the sort of purpose they are trying to divine is, frankly, the will of God. They want to know the reason that humanity is here. For that sort of question, the only sort of teleological answer that will suffice is a theological one. Many of the other Big Questions are similarly outside of the scope of science, including considerations of ethics and morality. Science can do a good job of describing moral systems and can even explain how such systems might arise (which can potentially offer a functional teleology), but science can not offer as an answer to the question of how we ought to behave towards one another.

Such criticisms, however, are tantamount to saying that science isn't either religion or metaphysics. One might just as plausibly criticize the field of ethics since ethicists can't seem to come up with any good medical vaccines, or criticizing theology on the basis that theologians make lousy bridge builders! Such criticism aren't wrong, they are irrelevant. Ultimately, they are simply tautologies: a thing is not that which it is not. When faced with such a criticism, the only correct answer is the shrug one's shoulders and say, "Yes, but so what?"

1 We might expect to find certain ritualized territorial and mating behaviors, however, to look similar to play. Inner-species conflicts are potentially dangerous. It is in an animal's interests, when dealing with rivals, to engage in non-lethal contests with opponents in order to gauge their strengths and to retreat if they are at a disadvantage, just as two tough-guys might opt to arm-wrestle one another rather than going directly to throwing punches.

The ritualization of mating behavior is its own complex subject which is outside the scope of this essay, although I would certainly encourage an examination of the literature.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .