Teleology is an account of a given thing's purpose. For example, Aristotle argued that the purpose of an acorn, its intrinsic telos, is to become an oak tree. This is intrinsic teleology. [A purpose imposed by human use, such as a fork’s extrinsic purpose is to make eating certain foods easier, is extrinsic teleology.] Natural teleology contends that natural entities have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human use or opinion.
According to Wikipedia:
Though ancient atomists rejected the notion of natural teleology, teleological accounts of non-personal or non-human nature were explored and often endorsed in ancient and medieval philosophies, but fell into disfavor during the modern era (1600-1900).
In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant used the concept of telos as a regulative principle in his Critique of Judgment. Teleology was also fundamental to the speculative philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.A recent example of teleological science is Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, an argument that the emergence of life, and in particular conscious life, cannot be explained by materialist or mechanistic principles but, rather, the required principles may be teleological.
Integral theorist Ken Wilber has based his entire integral model on a teleological view of the universe (derived from Vedanta and Tibetan Buddhism), arguing that consciousness arose in the universe so that the universe could come to know itself. In one of his early books, Wilber says that the “Big Bang which was really the roaring laughter of God voluntarily getting lost for the millionth time” (Up From Eden, p. 328). Or this, from a later book:
Maybe the evolutionary sequence really is from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, each transcending and including, each with a greater depth and greater consciousness and wider embrace. And in the highest reaches of evolution, maybe, just maybe, an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity - a total embrace of the entire Kosmos - a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. (A Brief History of Everything, p. 38)In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Wilber offers,
… these life forms were apparently not content to merely reproduce themselves, but instead began a long evolution that would eventually allow them to represent themselves, to produce sign and symbols and concepts, and thus out of life arose mind. Whatever this process of evolution was, it seems to have been incredibly driven from matter to life to mind. But stranger still, a mere few hundred years ago, on a small and indifferent planet around an insignificant star, evolution became conscious of itself. (p.3)This is a purely teleological understanding of evolution, of the universe. And for Wilber, eros is the force that drives the evolution of the universe.
In this model of the universe, the intention, or even the purpose, can only be understood through actions. In essence, the result of an action (evolution is the seemingly obvious drive toward complexity in the universe as we know it) explains its intention (the purpose of evolution is for the universe to become conscious of itself).
Wilber’s model, like Nagel’s, posits directionality—an intent—in nature. Wilber goes further and claims that the universe has become conscious of itself through human beings and that this is the intention behind evolution, going all the way back to the Big Bang (let’s ignore the fact that the Big bang is still a questionable origin story).
But is this necessarily true?
Psychologically, this is the sensorimotor stage of mentalization (the ability to think about thinking). Mentalization, according to Peter Fonagy, is a left-brain, voluntary, and slow secondary affect regulating system. It is the ability to step back and consider our own cognitive processes as objects of thought or reflection (paraphrasing Mary Main).
According to Csibra and Gergely (1998), "infant's 'teleological stance' generates reality-based explanations for actions that are neither mentalistic nor causal." In essence, the teleological perspective is "reality-based," in that it attempts to make sense of an event within the available evidence (primitive though it is), but it lacks a truly causal explanation due to a lack of ability to mentalize (to take one's thoughts/beliefs as an object of awareness).
Wilber’s sensorimotor stage is very low on his developmental schema and, in fact, it is the bottom (beginning) stage of cognitive development. As mentioned above, teleology is the sensorimotor stage of mentalization, the reading of one’s own and others’ mental states. There is likely some discrepancy in stages here, and Wilber’s sensorimotor stage and pre-operational stage may well be equivalent to Fonagy’s sensorimotor stage.
We take for granted that intentions precede actions in our experiences of other people. The problem is when we extend this belief to non-human agents, such as animals, weather, or the universe. This is a form of anthropomorphism, the attribution of human intentions and feelings to non-human agents.
As such, this is a primitive state of consciousness. It is correlated strongly with Wilber’s impulsive (or magical/animistic) stage of development. Again, very low on the hierarchy of cognitive development—it’s pre-rational (mind), pre-egoic (identity), pre-operational/symbolic (cognitive), and pre-conventional (moral). It is also preverbal, relying on a very basic cause and effect schema that intuits cause based on effects.
How is it that a teleological perspective in philosophy (and the philosophy of consciousness) is not considered primitive and pre-rational?
What we are really discussing here is a subtle manifestation of the pre/trans fallacy that Wilber himself is credited with discovering. Here is how this distinction is defined at Integral Life:
Ken noticed a core confusion that made it very difficult to discern between the lower stages and the higher stages. Trans-rational mystical experiences were often being dismissed as pre-rational fantasy, postmodern values were being erroneously projected onto pre-modern cultures, and pre-modern impulsiveness and hedonism were being celebrated by the postmodern counterculture. Rather than viewing psychology as a developmental process running from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational (or pre-differentiated fusion to differentiation to post-differentiated integration), a person was seen as being either rational or not—resulting in the trans-rational baby getting thrown out with the pre-rational bathwater.This is one of Wilber's most important theoretical contributions.
Despite this, Wilber's whole integral model falls into the pre/trans fallacy inherent in teleological perspectives. It's puzzling that Wilber never saw this issue in his own work, but it's often difficult to separate enough from our own beliefs to view them objectively.
On the other hand, he might argue that mystical perspectives are not subject to causal explanations. He has made such claims before.
Neither sensory empiricism, nor pure reason, nor practical reason, nor any combination thereof can see into the realm of Spirit. In the smoking ruins left by Kant, the only possible conclusion is that all future metaphysics and authentic spirituality must offer direct experiential evidence. (The Marriage of Sense and Soul, p. 174)According to this, we are to take as truth the "insights" of mystics who have seen into the realm of Spirit, whatever that may be. We are required to accept, in integral theory, a model of the evolution of the universe that is based on a teleological interpretation of why the universe is as it is.
And this does not even take into account the likelihood that the Big Bang is a false theory, or that rather than evolving toward greater complexity, the universe may well be evolving toward dissolution and entropy (space is expanding faster than previously believed).
As a result, it's suspected that receding galaxies will cross a type of cosmological event horizon, where any evidence of their existence, not even light, would ever be able to reach us, no matter how far into the future you went.
Would someone born in a future time when there are no other stars visible from Earth come up with the same models and explanations about the universe as people born during the previous centuries?
It seems unlikely.
We really lack any actual evidence for what is happening in other regions of the universe. We barely have a grip on what is happening on Earth.
Any person who believes that he or she can offer a cogent and comprehensive explanation for the universe and it's supposed evolution seems to me more than a little delusional.