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Teleology (from the Greek, telos - purpose or end) is the philosophical idea of design, purpose and goal-directed intention.

Aristotle stated that "Men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the 'why' of it (which is to grasp its primary cause)"[1]. Teleology comes for the Greeks as a natural reaction to Causality - if causes did not have effects, the very concept of primary causes would be meaningless. Plato, in the Phaedo, drew a distinction between efficient causes and what Aristotle would end up calling final causes. Efficient causes are the immediate causal step that enable something to happen. A car reversing accidentally drives over my foot - the cause of the immense pain in my foot would have as it's efficient cause the car parked on it. But this is not the final cause. If a person were to commit an intentional hit-and-run, then the efficient cause would be the same - the car hitting the person - but the final cause would be the intention or design of the driver. When we discuss a crime - a murder, say, it does not matter a tremendous amount how the crime was committed.

Plato showed a strange problem with teleology, namely that we often do things which have as their cause things in the future. A student learns to structure essays well while in school, so that when they get to university, they can pass their examinations. Without the concept of a mind or consciousness directing this, the earlier action does not make much sense. At a simple level, this is not controversial. It is certainly a strange way of looking at it that the driving of a car is the cause of having to find one's car keys. At another level, it becomes more controversial. If our minds are the cause of goal-directed action, then, as Michael Ruse puts it, "Whose mind is it that puts everything in motion and orders things for their own good? It is hardly our own minds - at least, it is hardly our minds once we look beyond our intentions and desires. We did not decree that eating would be of importance in achieving growth and maturity"[2]. Plato points to God, or the Demiurge (the sense of divine creative purpose which Plato describes in the Timaeus).

In modern philosophy, the notion of a final cause has had rough treatment. Francis Bacon described the use of final causes within science as being irrelevant to scientific inquiry - they have "given men the occasion to stay upon these satisfactory and specious causes, to the great arrest and prejudice of further discovery"[3]. Descartes similarly did not deny the existence of a divinely-sourced final cause, but noted that we should not seek it, rather focusing on the efficient cause.

See also


  1. Aristotle's Physics Book 2, Chapter 3
  2. Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does evolution have a purpose?, Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 14
  3. Francis Bacon, 1605, The Advancement of Learning