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.”