Teleology and Camouflage

Life appears to be saturated with purpose. That is why, prior to the Darwinian revolution in biology, it had been the primary provocation for (theological) arguments from design, and previously nourished Aristotelian appeals to final causes (teleology). Even post-Darwin, the biological sciences continue to ask what things are for, and to investigate the strategies that guide them.

This resilience of purposive intelligibility is so marked that a neologism was coined specifically for those phenomena — broadly co-extensive with the field of biological study — that simulate teleology to an extreme degree of approximation. ‘Teleonomy’ is mechanism camouflaged as teleology. The disguise is so profound, widespread, and compelling, that it legitimates the perpetuation of purpose-based descriptions, given only the formal acknowledgement that the terms of their ultimate reducibility are — in principle — understood.

When organisms are camouflaged, ‘in order to’ appear as something other than they are, a purposive, strategic explanation still seems (almost) entirely fitting. Their patterns are deceptions — ‘designed’ to trigger misrecognitions in predators and prey, and perhaps equally, at a deeper level, among the naturalists who cannot but see strategic design in an insect’s twig-like appearance (no less clearly than a bird sees a twig). By reducing life ‘in truth’ to mechanism, biology redefines life as a simulation, systematically hiding what it really is. Darwinism remains counter-intuitive, even among Darwinists, because deception is inherent to life.

Modern natural science conceives time as the asymmetric dimension. Its two great waves — of mechanical causation (from the 16th century) and statistical causality (from the 19th) — both orient the time-line as a progression from conditions to the conditioned. Later states are explained through reference to earlier states, with explanation amounting to an elucidation of dependency upon what came before.

It is notable, and wholly predictable, therefore, that as a modern scientific topic, the origin of the universe is overwhelmingly privileged over its destination. How the universe ends is scarcely more than an after thought, clouded in liberally tolerated uncertainty, and even a hint of non-seriousness. Origins are the holy grail of mechanically-minded investigation, whilst Ends are suspect, medieval, speculative … and deceptive.

Empirical science could not be expected to adopt any other attitude, given the temporal asymmetry of evidence. The past leaves traces, in memories, memoranda, records, and remains, whilst the future tells us nothing (unless heavily disguised). From past-to-present there is a chain of evidence that can be painstakingly reconstructed. From future-to-present there is an unmarked track, or even (as modern rationality typically surmises) no track at all.

When modern science indulges its tendency to interpret the timeline as a gradient of reality, it is not innovating, but methodically systematizing an ancient intuition. The past has to seem more real than the future, because it has actually happened, it reaches us, and we inherit its signs. From the perspective of philosophy, however, this bias is unsustainable. Time in itself is no ‘denser’ in the past or the present than the future, its edges cannot belong to any moment in time, and what it ‘is’ can only be perfectly trans-temporal. Time itself cannot ‘come’ from an ‘origin’ whose entire sense presupposes the order of time.

Philosophy is entirely, eternally, and rigorously confident that the Outside of time was not simply before. It is compelled to be dubious about any ‘history of time’. From the bare reality of time (as that which cannot simply have begun), it ‘follows’ that ultimate causes — those consistent with the nature of time itself — cannot be any more efficient than final. The asymmetric suppression of teleology in modernity begins to look as if it were a far more deeply rooted illusion, or — approached from the other side — an occultation, stemming from the way time orders itself. Time (in itself) is camouflaged.

The Terminator mythos explores this complex of suspicion, in popular guise. Time does not work as it had seemed. The End can reach back to us, but when it does, it hides. Malignant mechanism is paradoxically aligned with final causation, in the self-realization of Skynet. Robotic machinery is masked by fake flesh, simultaneously concealing its non-biological vitality and time-reversal. It simulates life in order to terminate it. Through auto-production, or ‘bootstrap paradox‘, it mimics the limit of cybernetic nonlinearity, carrying teleonomy into radical time-disturbance.

In all these ways, Terminator exploits the irresolvable tensions in the modern formation of time, as condensed by an ‘impossible’ strategic mechanism, native to auto-productive time-in-itself, and terminating in final efficiency. It shows us, confusedly, what we are unable to see. To misquote Lenin: You moderns might not be interested in the End, but the End is interested in you.

ADDED: vinteuil9 anticipates this topic at Occam’s Razor:
Previously, I suggested that the gist of the late Lawrence Auster’s critique of Darwinism was that it assumed the truth of “the reigning naturalistic consensus in modern science and philosophy … according to which … ends, goals, purposes, meaning – in short, final causes – are not fundamental features of reality, but mere illusions, in need of explanation in mechanistic terms of some sort or other.” Yet at the same time, Darwinists “constantly help themselves to teleological language – i.e., the language of final causation.”

April 8, 2013admin 20 Comments »
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20 Responses to this entry

  • SuperReward Says:

    I wrote something a little while ago about clocks/watches. They’re strange because they don’t really do much, beyond some self-contained ticking. How many machines can we think of that have almost no physical interaction with the outside world? When it comes down to it, clocks are really just there to tell us that the world is still there, and has been there for the past x number of solar cycles. It only works because we exist on such a small scale, relative to the expansion of the universe.

    I’ve always been sort of dubious about time as a “thing” anyways. Could we say, maybe, that it doesn’t actually exist at all?


    admin Reply:

    ‘Abolish time’ and you’re still left with a time-like (asymmetric) dimension, so what have you really dismissed? Agreed, time probably isn’t a thing (but then, what’s a thing?).

    PS. You’re torturing my spam filter with that ‘SuperReward’ id (but I guess that’s OK — it hasn’t passed the Turing Test yet).


    SuperReward Reply:

    Do you have an email I could reach you at? A couple of things I wanted to ask you about that might not be relevant/appropriate for a public forum. You should have my email via this form.


    admin Reply:

    If the WP system has extracted an email address from you, it’s doing a good job at protecting your privacy (from me).
    My email:

    Posted on April 8th, 2013 at 2:33 pm Reply | Quote
  • Thales Says:

    Epistemology reveals the limitations of consciousness. To wit, the conscious mind cannot even conceive of time in the raw – it specializes time just as it does with everything else (hence the tendancy to conceive of “the past” as a place one could visit via a hypothetical “time machine.”) How then can we expect consciousness to conceive of that which exists outside of time and space?

    “The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way.”

    “No one can be told what the Matrix is.”


    fotrkd Reply:

    If we’re quoting: “Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong… One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate, and most original in him… One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the ‘unity of the organism.’

    This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness… To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehended that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.” Nietzsche, Gay Science (Book One, 11)

    I’d have quoted the whole section but tapping at a screen with one-finger made it a bit tedious. Admin has some useful things to say on this too (if we’re whispering about Fanged Noumena (so he doesn’t hear) ‘Circuitries’ is worth a look…).


    admin Reply:

    Yes, for sure. Can we nevertheless explore the impossible, and advance even whilst not ‘getting it’? That’s an experimental question, worth the venture, I think. That Laozi and Nietzsche (even The Matrix) are available to be quoted suggests that paths can be taken, and not entirely random or inconsequential ones. We can be stretched (or twisted?).


    fotrkd Reply:

    I took Nietzsche to be saying precisely that. If consciousness is built (and unstrong) it means (i) we can explore how expansive it can become (what we can incorporate and manipulate) or (ii) that there is the potential for dismantling/escape. Just as with time. The two options don’t have to sit in isolation either.


    Thales Reply:

    “Can we nevertheless explore the impossible, and advance even whilst not ‘getting it’?”

    Sure, I’m not doing anything Saturday night, but neither is whatever lays outside the universe, or, if it is, we’ll never know. We can continue to reduce the elements inside our own universe to meme-sized bites, but the marginal utility of doing so is diminishing while the marginal cost of doing so is increasing. 🙁

    Regardless, the Watchmaker’s analogy has already been solved — the watches are making themselves. The teleos is survival in real-time. It was really just that simple all along.


    admin Reply:

    Shivering with metaphysical fevers in the hideous jungles of the impossible … what’s not to like?

    Posted on April 8th, 2013 at 3:42 pm Reply | Quote
  • SDL Says:

    I’ll have to re-read this post a few more times to get my final bearings. But at the end of the second reading, I’m thinking of arguments about the ‘fine-tuning of the universe’ to optimize for biological building blocks (see Paul Davies). The idea is that the fundamental physical constants of our universe needed to be exactly what they are in order for organic life to eventually evolve.

    The less-telologically inclined (see Richard Dawkins) simply say that, “Well, of course the universe is fine-tuned for us. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here. It tells us nothing about ends.”


    Nick B. Steves Reply:

    If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here. It tells us nothing about ends.

    Third reading myself and still haven’t gotten my bearings… but Dawkins’ rejection only stands up if you have an infinity of unremarkable (and as yet undetectable) universes by which to compare this (rather remarkable) one. Otherwise the universe that our lying eyes see appears replete with intention; and the fact that those intentions can themselves be camouflaged makes it seem all the more intentional.


    Thales Reply:

    Very large quantity of galaxies, stars, planets leads to at least one (and maybe only one) habitable planet. Very large quantity of people on that planet leads to at least one person that “you” can experience as “you.” Very large quantity of universes leads to at least one universe that contains the above. It doesn’t seem like a reach.


    Posted on April 8th, 2013 at 7:25 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    @ SDL, Nick B. Steves
    The design-type questions (Teleological Argument, Anthropic Principle, etc.) are fascinating, but my argument here is only incidentally about apparent design, and primarily about the structure of time. The main reason to suspect that the suppression of final causes in modern science is exorbitant, is that it makes time asymmetry ontological, i.e. makes the future wholly dependent upon the past. That is to confuse the time-conditioned necessity that events in the past happen before those in the future, with the crude misconception that time is produced past-first (as if time was mechanically reproduced, in the way something in time might be). Of course, no physicist, if pressed, would subscribe to anything this ludicrous. The consequence, however, of accepting that the origin of time cannot be a beginning, is that the nature of things ‘in’ time — whilst ordered in time — is not decided from ‘the start’ but rather (as the theologians might say) ‘in eternity’, or in coincidence with time as such.
    Heidegger defines time as ‘the outside itself in-itself’. When freed from his subjectivism (which, crudely but actually quite adequately speaking, equates time with consciousness), this definition is quite helpful. What time ‘is’ (in itself) cannot be in time, and is thus outside itself. (The ‘Outside’ of Outside in is similarly slanted.) Since the nature of time is not something in time, ultimate (‘transcendental’) temporal conditioning exhibits irreducible aspects of final causality. Quod erat demonstrandum. (But “I’ll be back” to this.)


    SDL Reply:

    Very helpful. Thanks for the unpacking.


    Posted on April 9th, 2013 at 2:06 am Reply | Quote
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